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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 Write Break the Contract with Your Reader

11 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.

In stories and novels, we occasionally write ourselves into corners of inevitability. The story dictates that a particular thing must come next, but we can’t or don’t want to write that ending. Often this is because the ending is going to be unpleasant for everyone involved: characters, readers, and writer. So what do we do? We can scrap or rewrite the story, or we can find a way to write the inevitable ending in a way that honors the narrative momentum that has been built but also changes the way we think about that narrative. Sometimes, this means breaking the contract with the reader—a big no-no in workshop but sometimes a necessary risk to take.

In his story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” Murray Farish writes an ending that radically shifts point of view and tone. You can read it now at FiveChapters. Tomorrow, Farish will talk about the risks of writing this kind of ending.

How the Story Works

Every story makes a contract with the reader—or, as various quotable writers have said, works of fiction teach their readers how to read them. This means that the first paragraph of stories and novels teaches the reader how the narrative will proceed in terms of point of view, style, and tone. Here is the first paragraph of “Inappropriate Behavior”:

George and Miranda Putnam have been called to another meeting at their son’s school. It’s hard for Miranda to get off work, but she’s going to be there. For George, it’s no problem, and there’s a part of him that’s glad for something to do. There’s a part of him that’s glad to have another grievance to nurse deep into the night. For Miranda, in this economy, this is all a real inconvenience.

The terms of the contract have been set. The story will be told in third person, switching between George and Miranda’s points of view, closer to George’s than Miranda’s. The tone is pretty straightforward—some version of realism. Of course, there is room to move within these terms, but if, for instance, the story shifts into extended first-person narration or if Godzilla rumbles onto the page, the reader might drop the story and walk away. Broken contracts don’t normally bode well for a work of fictions’ relationship with its readers.

Now watch how Farish begins the final section of this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man. He lived with his wife and his son in what he’d always been told was the greatest country in the world. God-loved and manifest. A city upon a hill. Commensurate to his capacity for wonder. The last, best hope of Earth. Then when the man reached what should have been his happiest and safest and most productive years, everything went wrong.

Farish has switched from close third person to a much more distant point of view. George is now “a man.” This change is straining against the bounds of the contract, but nothing has been broken yet. Then, Farish switches the focus of the point of view, from George to his son, Archie:

Their son watched all of this, and he was a smart boy. Everyone thought he was stupid, but he wasn’t. He didn’t understand why everyone thought he was stupid, but it didn’t matter, because he knew he wasn’t. The boy watched his parents. He knew they were scared. But the boy was not scared.

Again, this change is pushing against everything the reader has accepted and known thus far, but it’s a discomfort the reader will likely adapt to. It’s not like Godzilla has appeared on the page:

As soon as the father got in his car, a monster picked up his car and threw it all the way to where the boy couldn’t see. The boy got his sword and Mr. Carrots got his laser, and the boy said the spell to go through the door so they could rescue the apartment complex. Then they killed the monster.

Okay, now the contract is broken. How does Farish pull it off? Some readers will say that he doesn’t. Any narrative risk that a writer takes is bound to alienate some readers, and it’s not because those readers lack sophistication. At a certain point, liking a book isn’t about the book’s quality but about the readers’ taste. Some readers will give a story more leeway to break against expectations. That said, this story tries to set up the reader for the extreme change it has in store. First, as I wrote yesterday, the story continually breaks the frame of its own narration, which makes the reader comfortable with a story that will reach beyond its immediate setting. Second, the story eases into the ending, first tweaking the distance in the third-person POV and then changing the person that the POV follows. When the POV shifts from George to Archie, the tone necessarily changes as well, and it’s not unexpected. We’ve gotten to know Archie pretty well over the course of the story. So, Farish has set up the ending as much as possible.

But why make these changes at all? Why not stick with the terms of the contract? (Spoiler Alert) The story begins with Archie causing trouble at school, George out of work, and the stress taking a toll on George’s relationship with his wife Miranda. By the end, Archie has been removed from the school and placed in an alternative school for children with behavioral problems. George is still unemployed, his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, and they’ve lost their home. They’ve living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. Things are bad. Here is the scene that ends the story: George gets a call for an immediate job interview, but he has nowhere to go with Archie, who is at home. So George puts on Mario and tells the boy not to open the door; then he leaves for the interview. In this scene, nothing good can happen. Given the Job-like string of misfortune that has befallen the family, only a misfortune of the very worst kind can happen now. The way that the story must end is clear. And yet, as a reader, I don’t think I could bear it; it’s possible I might not finish the story. I’m not sure Farish, as the writer, could stand the ending, either.

So what is to be done with the story? Farish’s solution is to keep the scene but tell it from a POV that permits the reader to finish the story. It gives the reader enough emotional distance to keep going. In a way, by breaking the contract with the reader, the story works in partnership with the reader to create the ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an ending that breaks the contract with the reader, using the ending from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Choose a story that you can’t finish. Every writer has unfinished stories stashed in a folder. Read through the story again and ask yourself this question: Given what has occurred in the story, what must happen at the end? Now, ask yourself a second question: Do you want to write that ending? If the answer is yes, then go ahead and write it. Sometimes you just need to look at the ending logically. But if the answer is no, then you need to figure out why. Does the ending feel wrong? In other words, does it not fit your sense of the characters and place and tone? If so, you’ll need to adjust the way you’ve handled the characters, place, and tone (and what happens to them) so that you can get to the ending that is right for the story. You likely took a wrong turn somewhere; you’ll need to go back and find it. But perhaps the ending is right, and the problem is you don’t want to do that to your characters. In that case, you need to find a way to do what needs to be done.
  2. Try out different ways to break the contract with the reader. The most likely way to break the contract is to change the POV. Can you change the amount of distance in the point of view (close to distant third person)? You probably can’t switch from third to first. You might be able to switch from first to third. You can also switch the character at the focus of the POV. If you do this, you will also likely change the tone of the story since the character will have a different sense of the world. Another way to break the contract is to jump forward in time. Or go back in time. This type of break is more common but carries the same level of risk. Whatever type of break you choose, you should choose it intentionally. You can’t sneak a change past the reader.
  3. Ease into the break. What smaller changes can you make to prepare the reader for the big change? Farish first changes the distance of the point of view. Then he changes the focus (man to boy). Finally, he drastically changes the tone. Think about the break that you’ve chosen. What are small ways that you can begin to push against the limits of the contract before finally breaking it? Doing so can prepare the reader for what you’ve got in store.

One final thing to keep in mind. Farish breaks the contract at the very end of a long story. If he had broken it halfway through, all readers probably would have quit. Keep in mind the readers’ psychology. If they see that there is only paragraph or so left in the story, they’re likely to keep reading. Every workshop teacher in the world will preach not breaking contracts with readers, but if you must do so (and sometimes you must), then try to do it in a way that makes it easier on the reader.

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 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 Control Narrative Pace with Sentence Structure

4 Feb
Jennifer Dubois' novel Cartwheel has been called...

The writing in Jennifer Dubois’ novel Cartwheel was described in The New York Times as “a pleasure: electric, fine-tuned, intelligent, conflicted.”

Maybe you’ve had this experience: you’re deep into a gripping novel, hooked by the plot and dying to know what happens next, when you realize that you aren’t actually reading the book anymore. Instead, you’re skimming pages. The writing is still strong; you’d like to slow down and enjoy the sentences, but you can’t. You need to find out what comes next right now.

As a writer, this might seem like a victory: you’ve written a page-turner. But this type of reading also makes many of the actual words in the book superfluous. Wouldn’t it be nice to set an intriguing plot into motion and keep the reader’s attention on each sentence and detail?

This is precisely the feat that Jennifer duBois has pulled off in her novel Cartwheel. It was inspired by, though not based on, the Amanda Knox trial, and has been called a “tabloid tragedy elevated to high art,” by Entertainment Weekly. You can read the opening pages here (click on “Look Inside”).

How the Story Works

If the plot of Cartwheel pushes us forward, making us want to turn the page, the sentences slow us down, directing our attention to nuances. The sentences are not long or difficult to read, but they are structurally complex, filled with interruptions and asides. Notice how many of the sentences in the first paragraph do not move in a straight line:

Andrew’s plane landed at EZE, as promised, at seven a.m. local time. Outside the window, the sun was a hideous orb, bleeding orange light through wavering heat. Andrew was still woozy from his two Valiums and two glasses of wine, the bare minimum that he needed to fly these days—to anywhere, for anything, though especially for here, for this. The irony of being a professor of international relations who was terrified of international travel was not lost on him (no irony was lost on him, ever), but it would not be helped. Neither could it be mitigated by the knowledge—always understood but now finally believed—that the things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about.

The sentences use punctuation (commas, dashes, and parentheses) like detour signs. Some of these detours are long (“no irony was lost on him ever”), some are short (“as promised”), and some are a string of short detours (“to anywhere, for anything, though especially here, for this). The information they deliver varies widely. The phrase “no irony was lost on him ever” tells us a great deal about character. “Always understood but now finally believed” neatly lays out an eternal, psychological truth.

But what about the first one: “as promised”?

Planes land according to schedule all the time. Or they don’t, and no one is put out except in minor ways. Or the consequences are serious (missed connections, overnight stays in unfamiliar cities) but so common that they’re rarely noteworthy. If this paragraph was being discussed in a workshop, someone would almost certainly suggest cutting the phrase. And yet those two words—”as promised—perform an essential function. They force the reader to slow down, if only a little, and this is important because subsequent sentences will ask the reader to slow down even more. To some extent, the entire novel is about slowing down. It’s told from the point of view of multiple characters, each perspective often correcting or complicating the others. As much as the story moves forward, it also moves downward, deepening our understanding of the characters. If we’re racing along, flipping pages, we might miss most of what the novel offers. And so the sentences slow the reader to the pace required to truly enjoy the book.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing three short sentences that contain detours, using the opening paragraph from Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois as a model:

Sentence 1: Taking nothing for granted

  1. Write a sentence about a character entering a scene. This kind of sentence tends to drive writers crazy: walking characters through doors or into rooms, moving them from one place to another, sitting them down to a meeting or dinner or date. It’s a mechanical part of any story. Keep it simple, and then we’ll add to it.
  2. Suggest that some part of that sentence could have happened (or did happen) differently. Here is what duBois writes: “Andrew’s plane landed at EZE, as promised, at seven a.m. local time.” The “as promised” suggests that the plan could have arrived late or early. It’s a small detail, but it makes a mechanical, dull sentence take the reader by surprise and, perhaps, a bit uneasy. So, if your sentence is “He walked into the room,” you could change it to “He walked—tripped, really—into the room.” Notice what a difference this makes, how it catches your attention.

Sentence 2: Adding a postscript about desire

  1. Write a sentence about something a character needs or wants. The desire could be for anything: a Coke, a different job, somebody to love. It might be helpful to locate the character in a place, like this: “The sun was shining down on the stadium, and she desperately needed a Coke.”
  2. Add a note at the end about the desired thing. Here is what duBois writes: “Andrew was still woozy from his two Valiums and two glasses of wine, the bare minimum that he needed to fly these days—to anywhere, for anything, though especially for here, for this.” The passage after the hyphen makes it clear how much he needs the Valium and wine. So, if your sentence is “She needed a Coke,” you could add, “She needed a Coke—right here, right now, even if it cost her twenty dollars.” This kind of postscript mimics the way we often talk in real life—children and adults alike.

Sentence 3: Interrupting your own train of thought

  1. Write a sentence about a character’s personality. You might identify a trait or a tendency that exists despite the difficulties it causes: “Another drink would cause him to start shooting off his mouth, but he walked to the bar anyway” or “She’d been told that correcting people in public was unbecoming, but Afghanistan and Iraq were definitely not neighbors.”
  2. Add an aside that interrupts the flow of the sentence entirely. duBois writes, “The irony of being a professor of international relations who was terrified of international travel was not lost on him (no irony was lost on him, ever), but it would not be helped.” The parenthetical aside gives the character a measure of self-awareness, which can be useful later in a story when the character must make an important decision. An easy way to add an aside is to let the character comment on his/her own trait or tendency. So, my sentence about correcting people in public might become “She’d been told that correcting people in public was unbecoming (those twerps who worked as aids to powerful men were always insisting on manners), but Afghanistan and Iraq were definitely not neighbors.”

By writing sentences with detours, you may find that your story becomes looser, with room for characters to move about and think and forget, even momentarily, about the plot you’ve put them in. Perhaps you’ll write a page-turner that makes the reader stick to every word out of fear of missing something great.

Good luck!

How to Describe a Thing Without Naming It

14 Jan
Justin Carroll's story "Darryl Strawberry" was published in Gulf Coast 26.1. The story is about neither the Mets nor Darryl Strawberry.

Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” was published in Gulf Coast 26.1.

The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.

A perfect example of the effect of viewpoint on prose style is Justin Carroll’s story, “Darryl Strawberry.” It was published in Gulf Coast, and you can read the first pages here.

How the Story Works

Every story contains a moment of necessary description: of a room, a table, a character. The way we often begin the passage is by identifying the thing being described: kitchen, table, the person’s name. This direct approach has two potential problems, though. First, it can be boring. Second, it aligns with our preconceived ideas of a kitchen, table, or what we already know about the character. Because it’s predictable, the passage can have a tendency to hew to and repeat predictable words. So, to write lively, unexpected prose, we need to find a less direct approach.

The following passage from Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” illustrates this less direct approach. This passage comes after the main character, Kidd Fenner, has found a note from his son that says, “I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?” Fenner then gets in the car, and this is the scene that follows: (Notice the important, even necessary, words that Carroll avoids.)

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line. On nice days, he and Nora picnicked by the fence and gave Henry encouraging fist pumps before he stepped onto the mound. Christ, Fenner wonders, how long since then? No more than two years ago, which might as well have been forever.

The words that he avoids, of course, are baseball and field. In short, Carroll has avoided naming the thing that he is describing. The result of this, at least in my reading, is that I was momentarily disoriented. (Since when does a Safeway parking lot have bleachers? But the details quickly oriented me. Dugout is pretty place-specific.) Because of that initial confusion, I paid closer attention. If Carroll had written baseball field in the first sentence, I would’ve scanned the rest, thinking, “Of course a baseball field has bleachers and a dugout.” An editor might have encouraged Carroll to cut those details and skip right to the line about encouraging fist pumps. If that had happened, what would be lost? Perhaps a sense of intimacy. The details draw us into a small but important moment. If the prose had just barreled onto the field, we might not appreciate or even notice that moment because we wouldn’t be paying attention.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing a description that makes the reader pay attention, using “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll as a model:

  1. Choose the place. It can anywhere: indoors or outdoors, a room in a house or the house itself, a public place such as a store or a particular part of that place such as an aisle or the parking lot.
  2. Write a sentence that names the place. Be direct and simple: “The parking lot was full,” or “The kitchen was warm and full of inviting smells.”
  3. Ban yourself from using any of the words (minus articles and linking verbs) in that sentence. You’ve established the most predictable words that can be used to describe your place. Now, you can find better words.
  4. Decide where your narrator or observer will stand and write a sentence that states this. Even if your novel is in third person, even if it doesn’t privilege the point of view of one character, you can still position the point of origin of the description. If the observer is in the middle of your place, the description will read differently than if the observer is standing at the side or edge or watching from a distance. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer, Kidd Fenner, is “parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot.”
  5. List, with brief descriptions, the most outstanding elements of the place. By outstanding, I mean, literally, the elements that stand out. Choosing those elements will depend on the limits placed on your observer. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer is limited by lack of light. But not all limits must be physical. They could also be emotional or mental: in other words, give your observer a pair of rose or other-colored glasses. Don’t dwell too long on any particular element of the description. Keep listing and describing new elements until you feel the urge to comment upon one.
  6. Comment on a description. In “Darryl Strawberry,” after the observer notices the mound, base paths, and fence, he remembers giving his son fist pumps before he pitched. Then, he thinks, “Christ…how long since then?” It’s memories and comments like those that are the description’s entire reason for being. They advance both the story and our understanding of the characters and their conflicts. That advancement can only happen, though, if the prose forces the reader to pay attention.

This same process can be used for describing a person—or anything, in fact. The goal is the same: avoiding predictable sentences in order to write unexpected ones. You may find that you’ve written at least one sentence that surprises you. If it surprises you, it will likely surprise the reader as well.

Good luck!

How to Create Your Narrator’s Voice

3 Sep
Joe Lansdale's new novel The Thicket is about X. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

Joe R. Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket follows a band of unlikely heroes on an adventure in turn-of-the-century East Texas. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?

One writer who consistently creates compelling narrators is Joe R. Lansdale. His new novel, The Thicket (to be released September 10) is set in East Texas at the turn of the century and narrated in a voice that catches your eye before the first sentence is over. The writer Ron Carlson said that The Thicket is “told in a voice so alluring and deadpan that it makes you smile and then look around to see who saw you smile.” You can read a preview of the first chapter here.

How the Story Works

First sentences are notoriously difficult to write. Stephen King recently claimed that he cannot write a novel until he’s gotten the first sentence right, and that sometimes doing so takes years. So it’s interesting to see how Lansdale approaches the first sentence of his novel. Notice how quickly he establishes the narrator’s voice:

“I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”

In that sentence, Lansdale falls back on a tried-and-true strategy. If you don’t know how to start a story, just tell the reader what will happen. It may sound simplistic, but this face-value approach is key to establishing the narrator’s voice for two reasons:

  1. We learn that the narrator is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He’s not going to play around with us. If you’re trying to develop a character, it’s useful to have a couple of hard-and-fast personality traits to rely upon.
  2. Because the statement is so factual, Lansdale has the luxury of playing with the words. He doesn’t have to worry about finding something interesting to say; he just needs to let the narrator find an interesting way to say a basic thing. This is exactly the strategy used here by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (notice how it’s stating basic information):

“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.”

A final point to consider: It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that great voices are highly elaborate or deeply folksy, but the phrasings that make them memorable are often subtle. Lansdale’s three-part phrase “gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog” simply adds a few eye-catching adjectives. (This is another reason you shouldn’t abide by all “rules for writers.” Adjectives, when used well, can make a story sparkle.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a voice, using Joe Lansdale’s The Thicket as a model:

  1. Using a story you’ve been working on, write a new first sentence(s). State outright, in the first person, what will happen. Use your plainest language. You’re giving yourself a frame to hang the narration on.
  2. Think about your narrator. Would he or she make such a up-front statement? If not, what parts would the narrator want to hide or soften? How would the simple statements be rephrased in order to make the narrator more comfortable? Make those changes.
  3. If the narrator had a captive audience, how would he/she change the remaining phrases in order to make them more interesting? In other words, what is the narrator’s storytelling voice? Because that is what narrators are doing: telling a story. Pick two or three words or phrases and make some simple changes: add adjectives, replace nouns with different nouns, or cut words to create surprising juxtapositions (“true love and kill someone”).

Play with your sentence(s) and see what you get. If you’re having fun, it’s a good sign.

Good luck.

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