How to Add Interiority in the Midst of Suspense

7 Mar

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

The death note for any work of fiction is just that—a single note. When a novel or story is doing just one thing at a time, readers will get bored and walk away. Good fiction, then, juggles multiple elements at once. There are large-scale ways of doing this (multiple points of view, multiple timeframes), but it’s also possible to juggle elements on a sentence and paragraph level. Even when writers are moving between the big building blocks of POV and time, they’re also doing the same thing in small ways because those small shifts are what keep a reader engaged. After all, readers read pages and chapters one sentence at a time, and so writers must hold their attention on that level.

A good example of juggling elements on this small-scale be found in Alexandra Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is a thriller with a slow-burning fuse, driven as much by mood and eeriness as some of the flashier mystery writing tools. The prologue makes this clear. Instead of, say, a murder, it shows us actions that we seem urgent and weird but that we don’t entirely understand: an unexplained and hurried trip, an encounter with the police that ends in a robbery (and not the other way around), a robbery that doesn’t quite make sense, and identities that are tossed aside and replaced with ease. All of this happens in four pages. But the multiple elements aren’t the things that happen. They’re laid out in chronological order, one thing after the other. Instead, the multiple elements are what is happening and what the main character is thinking: exterior action and interior thought.

Here is an example of how Burt shifts between the two. All we know is that a girl and her mom are driving across the country. Here’s the girl:

She opened a bag of Red Vines, sucked on them and then gently rubbed them over her lips until they turned crimson.

Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia—the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion; a box-shaped bellows-driven musical instrument, colloquially referred to as a squeezebox—she concentrated on the sound of the pages rustling like old parchment as she flipped through the tattered book.

Her mother called her Pet. The girl didn’t like the name, especially when her mother introduced her. This is pet, she’d say with a smile. She’s very shy. Then her mother moved on quickly, as if she had told too much already.

Pet, the encyclopedia said, a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship. Treated with care and affection.

The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page. She remembered when it was new, how the pages and the spine had not yielded as readily, and she wondered if the pages would eventually shed. She attempted to focus on a word but the movement of the car made her nauseous. Eventually she just left the book cracked open in her lap.

“My feet are cold. Can I get a pair of socks from the trunk?” she asked somewhere after the New Mexico/Texas border.

The passage begins with action (“She opened a bag of red vines”) and continues with more action (“Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia”) but then shifts into the character’s head and what she notices about the encyclopedia (“the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion” and “the sound of the pages rustling”).

Then, it moves into background information (“Her mother called her Pet”) that turns into the character’s feelings about the name (“The girl didn’t like the name”) and a memory of her mother saying it.

Next, the passage returns to the encyclopedia’s definition of Pet.

The next paragraph starts with more action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”) and moves again into memory (“She remembered when it was new”).

Finally she puts the book down and speaks—back to action.

Of course, one might argue that there isn’t much action in this passage, and it’s true. The action consists of reading a book. But it’s just a small passage situated in a prologue about a mysterious cross-country drive and some inexplicable things that happen along the way. Without this moment of interiority, the novel might have a couple of problems. First, the drive would happen too fast, in two pages instead of four. Second, readers might not care what happens because the characters would be simply pieces moved around by the author. Third, readers might not have a sense of the world and how it feels. Sense (or mood) is often, though not always, built with interiority.

So, to create mood, pacing, character, and a sense of the world, Burt must move back and forth between intriguing action and interiority.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s move back and forth between exterior action and interiority, using The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt as a model:

  1. Know what is happening—generallyThink in terms of the larger unit (prologue, chapter, section). What is the overall arc? If someone asked your reader, what happened in that part, what would they say? In Burt’s case, the characters seem to be on the run from something. They’re driving. That’s the general happening of the prologue. What is the general happening in the part of your story/book that you’re focusing on?
  2. Zoom in on a smaller piece of action. Within the larger arc, what is happening on the smaller scale. Try phrasing it this way: While they were ____, So-and-so _____. What action fills the second blank? In Burt’s case, it’s the character eating Red Vines and reading the encyclopedia. Notice that she gives her character two things to do. The first action serves as a kind of transition to the second action, taking some of the weight off of it so readers don’t initially read too much into it.
  3. Give the character something to notice while doing this small action. Burt’s character notices something about the page of the book? What does your character notice?
  4. Add information. At a certain point, Burt needs to tell us the character’s name. It’s one of those pieces of information that must be included early in a story/book. Burt chooses one that seems particularly important to the story and drops it in, seemingly out of the blue, but then lets the character react to the information, remember something about the information, and then act based on that information (she looks up Pet in the encyclopedia). So, don’t just add the information. Let it lead back into interiority and then back out again into action.
  5. Zoom back out. Burt moves us out of the character’s head and into less specific action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”). Finally she sets the book aside and speaks, and then we’re back into the general action of the drive again.

The goal is adjust narrative pace by creating layers of action and the opportunity to portray a character’s interior state (and also to drop in some basic, unavoidable information).

Good luck.

An Interview with Siân Griffiths

2 Mar
Sian Griffiths

Siân Griffiths directs the creative writing program at Weber State University. Her story, “The Key Bearer’s Parents” was published at American Short Fiction.

Siân Griffiths directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She holds a BA from the University of Idaho and an MA and PhD from the University of Georgia, where she specialized in fiction writing. Her work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewAmerican Short FictionRedividerFifth Wednesday JournalQuarterly West, Ninth Letter, and Baltimore Review, among many other publications. Her poem “Fistful,” first published in Ninth Letter, was included in the 3rd edition of Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses, a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, was inspired, in part, by her work with the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1999-2000. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse and is at work on her second novel.

To read an exercise on grounding a story’s hook, inspired by Griffiths’ story “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” click here.

In this interview, Griffiths discusses her favorite advice about structuring flash fiction, using tense shifts, and the different creative impulses that drive poetry and fiction.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is from Ron Carlson, who says that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story enters. I was struck in “The Key Bearer’s Parents” how clearly you lay out both. The first paragraph introduces the characters (clown parents, resentful son) and then next paragraph shifts gears pretty dramatically, introducing the possibility of nuclear war and the “key bearer plan.” The juxtaposition is unexpected and exciting. Was the story always laid out this way? Or did you have to discover this structure?

Siân Griffiths

It was definitely one I discovered as I drafted. I knew where the story was going before I started writing, which is actually fairly rare for me, but in my first draft, the key bearer plan came in much later, closer to when the son volunteers to fill the position. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s an amazing reader, and he asked if I had considered introducing that element earlier in. As soon as he asked, I knew that was exactly what the story needed, and I realized that Congress would have been debating this for some time, and so the story of the bill’s creation became a story running on a not quite parallel line to the son’s. Each plot line culminates at the moment they intersect.

Michael Noll

I recently heard someone say that flash fiction takes places within a scene, but not this story. It covers decades. Did it start out longer? Did you ever try out different chronological frames?

Siân Griffiths

My favorite advice about structuring flash fiction is something that the writer Pam Houston said, which was that in flash, the conflict doesn’t need to resolve, but the key image must resolve. I think that may be true of this story, though it’s less obviously true for me here than in other flash I’ve written. For this one, I had the ideas that I wanted to put in this story for some months before I figure out how I could weave them together. It was the voice that got me. As soon as I had “We were good parents,” I had all the pieces I needed and wrote it quite quickly (that is, if we’re defining writing as the actual putting into words and not the lengthier conceptualizing part.) I think because it takes that voice–that of parents telling their story–it’s able to jump through years quite quickly. It acts like the kind of story we tell our friends at a party or a bar–or, maybe in this case, sobbing over a coffee. It takes on that kind of relationship to time, where hindsight allows us to see the relevant events that led to the current moment.

Michael Noll

I also love the tense shifts. For example, near the end, the story shifts from past to present tense: “Our son was already filling out the online application. And now that he’s been selected…” This is the sort of thing that writing workshops tend to chew up, but it seems to give you great flexibility in moving through time in the story. Was it difficult to get these tense changes right?

Siân Griffiths

Oh, that’s well spotted! Honestly, I think that move came instinctively, arising out of that voice and the moment of the narration. I wanted to capture the voice of these parents right in the moment where they’re dealing with this new reality, the moment of fear and not knowing what will happen next. For me, that’s the moment of honest emotion. If it’s further ahead in time, when they know whether the son will be safe or not, then I think it would lose its heat.

Michael Noll

You’re a poet in addition to a fiction writer, a not unheard-of combination but also not very common. Are the impulses to write a poem and story similar? Do you sit down to write and discover, as you write, what form the piece will take? Or are the two forms separate in your mind: poetry on Tuesday and fiction on Wednesday, so to speak?

Siân Griffiths

Yes—I’ve never been any good at sticking to a single genre, which was always a bit of an issue in both undergraduate and graduate school, where I was asked to specialize. I tend to write prose most often—essay/memoir or fiction—but poetry has definitely always been an interest and I’ve just drafted my first screenplay, which was a whole new challenge. I feel like each genre offers its own possibilities and limitations. For instance, a poem doesn’t necessarily have the same push for closure as a story, so if I start with an image or bit of language and just want to kind of languish there with it a while, then I tend to write a poem. If I want to explore a character or a situation, then I write a story. If I want to talk about a real life incident I can’t stop thinking about, then I write an essay. Everything starts in my journal as fragments and notes, many of which go nowhere. The once that have heat stay with me and bug me to keep writing about them. Each piece comes with its own impulse, and I tend to know what I’m writing when I start.

“Tend to” is the operative phrase here, though, because I’ve definitely been wrong. For instance, I wrote this poem that I wrote that I really loved, but every time I sent it out, it was rejected. I couldn’t understand it. I was as proud of that poem as I’d been of anything, but I stopped sending it out, deciding I needed to figure out what was wrong. A year or two later, I read a Steve Almond essay suggesting that some failed poems might actually be flash fiction. (For those interested, the essay is called “Getting the Lead Out: How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories” and it’s in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.) I pulled out my line breaks, revised a bit, sent it out again, and sure enough, it was quickly picked up by a great journal. And so I learned that sometimes I need to loosen the reins, and that as much as I think I know what I’m writing, I always have to be ready to be wrong and let the piece become something else.

March 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set Up a Story’s Hook

28 Feb
"The Key Bearer's Parents" by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

“The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths appeared online at American Short Fiction.

A story must hook its readers. Everyone knows this. The problem is that a hook can sometimes feel as if it’s trying too hard. I remember once, when I was a reader for a literary journal, coming across a first line that was something like “He was walking down the freeway with a turd in a bucket.” It caught my eye, sure, but it also felt like something that wanted to be noticed—and that is fine as long as the writer is able to place the hook within a world and story. In this case, it was just a turd in a bucket. Nothing that followed was as interesting or compelling, which means the opening line was a failure.

A great example of a story that places its hook firmly in a story and world is “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths. It was published online at American Short Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here is how Griffiths’ story opens:

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

The hook is obvious: the shock of encountering “honking red noses” in a story that starts off seeming like a realistic story about two parents. It’s sometimes useful to imagine how else a story could have been written, and so here is another version of these opening lines:

When people saw our honking red noses, they thought we weren’t good parents, but we were.

The basic elements haven’t changed: parenting, red noses, and the expectations people have based on those noses. But the effect isn’t the same. This new version is trying too hard, in my view, like a teacher who tries to be cool and uses five-year-old slang. It’s focused entirely on how people will see it and, as a result, doesn’t come off as natural. Griffiths’ actual opening, on the other hand, starts inside the narrators’ heads, focusing on what they believe about themselves: We were good parents. This grounds us. No matter how many unexpected details the story throws at us, we know who these characters are because we know what they worry about.

As the paragraph continues, we get more clown stuff: makeup, over-sized shoes, flowers. These details are humorous and interesting, but we see through them to what matters: the parents’ conflicted feelings as they watch their kid be embarrassed of them.

As with all “rules” for writing, this one won’t hold true all of the time. Sometimes a story will need to start, from the first word, with how a character is viewed. That said, it’s probably a good idea to start a draft inside a character’s head, feelings, and desires. Establish the kernel of humanity—the conflict or desire that readers will intuitively recognize—and then add a honking red nose or turd in a bucket.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up a story’s hook using “The Key Bearer’s Parents” by Siân Griffiths as a model:

  1.  Start with the hook. Know what it is. If you’re not sure, tell the first part of the story to someone—anyone, someone you trust or a complete stranger. What detail makes their eyes open wider? If you can’t bring yourself to do this, do it in your head. Which detail surprises? To quote the wisdom of Sesame Street, which of your details is not like the other?
  2. Figure out your character’s self-affirmation. If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, you know what I’m talking about. Smalley would repeat to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” It didn’t matter if this was true or not. What mattered was that Smalley needed it to be true, the same as Griffiths’ narrators need to feel that they’re good parents. So, what does your character need to be true? How does your character need to be viewed?
  3. Place the self-affirmation before the hook. It doesn’t need to be as over the top as Stuart Smaller’s. Griffith’s first line seems like a basic statement of fact—but, of course, it’s not. It’s a matter of opinion, but it’s stated to plainly that it doesn’t jump out at us—until we read “honking red noses.” Ordering the sentence in this way can make the hook stand out more and also make the essential human need of the character stand out.
  4. Add action. When I was in college, I’d go to the rec center’s weight room, and there’d be enormous guys who’d grunt when they lifted and then drop the weights to the rack or the floor with a bang. They wanted to make sure that everyone saw them because they needed to be seen as strong. Desire always leads to action. Either the character acts, like the guys in the weight room, or the character becomes intensely aware of other people’s actions, like the narrators in “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” who notice every small thing their kid does when they show up. What action (acted or noticed) follows naturally from your character’s desire and self-affirmation?
  5. Don’t forget the hook. Keep it present in the reader’s mind. If you don’t, then it’s a gimmick. But if you commit to it, referencing it whenever possible, in the context of the action and desire, then you’ll create something readers haven’t seen before and they’ll keep reading.

The goal is to hook readers with something surprising and with an essential element of every story: character desire.

Good luck.

An Interview with Paige Schilt

27 Feb

 

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Paige Schilt is the author of the memoir Queer Rock Love.

Dr. Paige Schilt is a writer, mother, teacher, activist and band wife. Her stories have appeared on The Bilerico Project, Offbeat Families, Mutha Magazine and Brain, Child. She is a frequent speaker and facilitator at conferences, including Gender Odyssey, Contemporary Relationships, Creating Change and Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. Schist is married to Katy Koonce, frontman for the band Butch County. They live in Austin, Texas, with their son.

To read an excerpt from Queer Rock Love and an exercise on structuring a character’s internal conflict around action, click here.

Michael Noll

Queer Rock Love covers a lot of years, starting literally at the births of you and Katy and moving far beyond the falling-in-love and getting-married part of your story together. How did you approach the book’s structure? Or, to put it another way, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the book?

Paige Schilt

I wish I had a smart answer to this question. The truth is, many of the chapters in Queer Rock Love originated as blog posts for The Bilerico Project. In fact, the last few chapters were among the first stories that I wrote. As a result, I struggled for a long time to find the plot. I knew that I wanted to write against the typical transgender partner narrative, which tends to portray coming out as the crisis and surgery or transition as the resolution. That led me to begin with the moment I first saw my wife in a full beard and prosthetic man chest—not because it was love at first sight (which it was), but because there would be no secrets to reveal about her trans status.

I also knew that I wanted to write about the imbrication of life and death, and that Katy’s struggle with hepatitis C would unfold in the context of our son’s infancy. Writing about hepatitis C was a challenge, because chronic illness doesn’t necessarily have one identifiable crisis. It’s more like a miasma, which is what makes it so oppressive. I had to think a lot about how much sickness I thought my readers could handle. I ended up leaving out certain medical events, which continues to be a bone of contention in my marriage! That’s something you rarely hear memoirists talk about—the possibility that the people you wrote about will dwell on the details you didn’t tell.

Michael Noll

In her review of the book, Marion Winik points out that you don’t do “a bunch of theoretical heavy lifting on genderqueer issues.” On one hand, this seems like a natural choice since the story you’re telling isn’t exactly theoretical: it’s about love and marriage and the challenges that married people face all over the world. On the other hand, it’s a love story that is new to a lot of people—and you’re an academic who name drops Lacan, so the language of theory is one you’re intimately familiar and comfortable with. How difficult was it to find your voice in this memoir?

Paige Schilt

Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

I started writing these stories in 2008, and I didn’t finish the book until 2015, so I had a lot of time to transform my voice. I was teaching LGBT film studies for a large part of those years, and the book is informed by my readings of Jack Halberstam, Eve Sedgwick, José Munoz, and many others. At first, I was tempted to plunk down a quotation from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in my chapter on breast feeding. Now that I’ve read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I feel like I could have indulged that impulse a bit more. At the same time, the fellow writers in my writing workshop tended to feel like I was losing the thread of the story when I made theoretical asides. In the end, I think I found a kind of compromise position. I’m proud of the section in the prologue where I write about my aversion to gender essentialism through the story of my 1970s childhood dolls, the Sunshine family. I think the key is helping the reader feel what’s at stake, in a personal way, with theoretical ideas.

Michael Noll

Going along with the lack of theoretical heavy lifting, I love the way that you mix action with interiority. So, for example, you start a chapter with buying a duplex rather than thoughts about your relationship. Did these scenes and moments come together naturally in your writing, or did you have to realize, oh yeah, that happened and it’s a good opportunity to write about what I was thinking at the time?

Paige Schilt

I didn’t think specifically about mixing action with interiority, but I did think a lot about pacing and economy. And I do experience my inner life as a dynamic dialogue with ideas and people and things. For instance, the moment when I realize that Katy has thrush because I’ve read about the symptoms in AIDS memoirs—I literally did have that sense of recognition. Was I really rummaging through the linen closet when it came to me? I’m not sure—but I needed to place that realization in a context of collecting extra toiletries for Katrina survivors, because I wanted our personal tragedy to be contextualized by the epic tragedy in New Orleans.

Michael Noll

I was recently at the AWP conference, moderating a panel on writing about class, and I asked the panelists how they handle perceived or real exoticism in their work—details that seem shocking or weird to some readers but are just part of the fabric of life for the characters or narrator. As a writer, how do you use those details to maximum effect and hook the reader but also portray them as they seem to the people involved with them. I thought of this again with your book. In an interview in OutSmart, you write about pitching the book to editors and agents, who wanted a more “tragic, sensational story.” The title of the memoir seems to accomplish two things. It’s probably pretty eye-catching to some readers, but it’s also an accurate, unembellished description of the book. Was it difficult to pull off both at once?

Paige Schilt

I think this connects back to the question of plot. A lot of transgender partner or family narratives focus on surgery or physical modifications to the body. I wanted to write matter-of-factly and informatively about Katy’s chest surgery and other potentially sensational matters, including how we conceived our son. In those chapters, my imagined readers are other gender nonconforming families like ourselves, those who might need some roadmaps for this unorthodox journey. At the same time, I didn’t want our family life to be reduced to just that one thing, because I wanted to portray the complexity of our life. In the end, I think that’s what compels most readers. They find some other aspect of our lives that they identify with. A lot of readers write to me because they have also nursed someone through a long illness and they’re glad that I wrote about how hard it is to be a caregiver.

Some of my mentors cautioned me not to put the word “queer” in the title. For a long time, I thought Queer Rock Love was just my working title, but then it stuck. The phrase comes from the song “Dyke Hag” by the band Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, who also appear in the book. The song is a celebration of queer creative community and the non-nuclear-family ties that bind. When I was writing the book, the title was like a string around my finger, reminding me to always keep the big picture of queer community in mind, even as I was writing about marriage and parenting. In other words, this iteration of “queer” is less about the (possibly sensational) subject of who you have sex with. It’s about community.

February 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Give Your Characters a Kick in the Pants

21 Feb
Paige Schilt's memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a "well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal" by Kirkus Reviews.

Paige Schilt’s memoir, Queer Rock Love, was called a “well-balanced, soul-searching family memoir with broad appeal” by Kirkus Reviews.

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that it’s boring to read about characters thinking. If thinking and realizing are the primary actions in a story, that story probably isn’t going to work. Even the most brilliant ideas need to be attached to drama—action, intrigue, conflict. On a practical level, this means that it can be a great exercise to start chapters or stories by giving your character a kick in the pants and forcing him or her to act, not just think.

Paige Schilt proves that this strategy works for nonfiction as well. Again and again, she starts chapters of her memoir Queer Rock Love with action. You can see how she does it here.

How the Memoir Works

The book is a love story featuring Schilt and her wife, Katy, an Austin rocker/therapist (a very Austin combination). Unlike many love stories, it begins with marriage, which means that the drama is found not in falling in love but in dealing with the obstacles that threaten to overwhelm love once it’s established. That said, this chapter comes early in the book, when Schilt is finishing up graduate school in Pennsylvania and still figuring out what it means to be the relationship. One of Katy’s friends decides to buy a house in Austin, but since Austin prices are quickly rising, the only place he can afford is a duplex—if someone splits it with him and lives in the other unit. He decides that Katy will be that person:

“And, because Katy and I had decided that we were married, that meant that I was meant to buy a house with Jim too. That night on the phone, Katy told me that she and Jim were going to look at a house in South Austin. “He says it just has this remarkable energy.” I rolled my eyes in the privacy of my Pennsylvania apartment, and Katy continued unaware. “He thinks we ought to buy it together. It’s a duplex, so we could live in the top and he could live in the bottom.”

“Hmm…” I said. In my heart I had decided to move back to Austin, but I hadn’t given much thought to where we would live. I was filled with dread at the prospect of telling everyone—my department chair, my mentors, and especially my parents—that I was quitting my job. Through six grueling years of grad school, life had seemed linear. If all went well, I would land a tenure track position and move up the ladder at regularly scheduled intervals. Now I felt like I was sailing over the edge of the known universe in a barrel. I wasn’t entirely sure if I would survive the journey. What did I care for the details of how we might live when (and if) I arrived?

A few nights later, Katy brought it up again. “You’re going to love it,” she said. “There’s something about it—it’s just got the greatest energy.” I tried to remain noncommittal, but suddenly Katy was talking mortgage lenders and down payments.

“But,” I objected, “I haven’t even met Jim! How can I buy a house with someone I’ve never met?”

My feeble sandbags were no match for the tidal wave of Katy’s enthusiasm. “You’re going to love him too,” she assured me. “He’s super smart, and he reads Lacan! I think you guys actually have a lot in common.”

Think about how this passage could have been written—and often is written in early drafts, especially in beginning writer workshops. The character/narrator would have agonized over what to do, perhaps while drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, or looking out the window—actions that would have been meaningless filler. Schilt avoids that problem by giving the scene real drama and action (people buying a house) and, therefore, a meaningful choice to make. The same pondering that would have filled the alternative draft are still there, but now they’re made concrete with the duplex.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character or narrator’s thoughts concrete, using Queer Rock Love by Paige Schilt as a model:

  1. Identify your character’s or narrator’s existential dilemma. For Schilt, that dilemma was about what it meant to be in a marriage—and in this marriage in particular. It’s a lot for any person or character to think about, which is great for drama. It’s what we often mean when we use the term stakes. So, what does your character or narrator (real or invented) worry or think about late at night, while driving, or while he or she ought to be focused on something else?
  2. Introduce a decision made by someone else. In this passage, Schilt does not suddenly get it into her head to buy a duplex. The idea doesn’t even start with her wife, Katy. Instead, it’s a third person who talks Katy into it, and then Katy goes to work on Schilt. This is important for two reasons. First, it takes some of the pressure off of the main character to be the focus of all the drama. The drama should affect the character/narrator, but it doesn’t need to be started by the character/narrator. Second, it creates a larger world for the story. Suddenly a character we haven’t even met yet is playing a crucial role, which means our sense of the place around the main characters grows. So, look beyond your main characters. Who are their friends, coworkers, family members, and acquaintances? What decisions are those people making that might impact the main characters? How and why would these side or minor characters try to include the main characters in their plans?
  3. Force the issue. Katy doesn’t raise the possibility of buying the duplex and then let it drop. She brings it up over and over again, each time applying greater pressure, moving from “you’re going to love it” to practical issues like mortgage payments. The duplex is becoming a reality, whether Schilt wants to engage with it or not. As a result, she must figure out her feelings about the big, existential issue because this more practical matter is coming to a head. How can your characters apply pressure, forcing your main character or narrator to make a decision, not just about the practical issue (whether to buy a duplex) but also about the larger existential issue, whatever it is for your character?

The goal is to move the story along, from though to action and, therefore, drama by forcing the issue. Important practical matters often require us to sort out our feelings about existential dilemmas.

Good luck.

An Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

16 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called "a wealth of talent."

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut story collection, Barefoot Dogs, has been called “a wealth of talent.”

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born in Toluca, Mexico, and has occupied every imaginable position in a newsroom, working for publications in Mexico, Europe and the U.S. He’s also taught creative writing to bilingual second graders, sold Mexican handcrafts at a flea market in Spain, and played Santa Claus at a French school in Silicon Valley. He’s been honored as a Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano Fellow by the Graduate School at UT and The Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared widely, including in The New York Times. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs will be published by Scribner on March 10.

To read an excerpt from his story “Madrid” and an exercise on writing moments of high emotion, click here.

In this interview, Ruiz-Camacho discusses beginning stories with a strong lede and haunting images and introducing unexpected twists in dialogue.

Michael Noll

The opening of “Madrid” ends with an almost Dan Brown-esque cliffhanger: “There are no curtains or blinds on the windows to keep the buzz away because we don’t worry about privacy and security here. We don’t have to care about that anymore.” It not only made me want to find out what was going on, it also set up a sense of dread well before the first grisly detail of the kidnapping arrives. Did you always begin the story in this way?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Yes, I wanted to open with an intense sense of the kind of traumatic experience the protagonist was going through, even though you could say it’s a rather slow opening in terms of movement or action.

I always like to start with a striking image, or at least a lede strong enough to hook the reader in–an opening so intriguing and complex that the reader feels she has no option but to keep reading. I have worked as a journalist for more than 18 years. In journalism, if you don’t grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning, you’re doomed. I think that my journalistic background has helped me to develop the skills needed to write effective openings. The trick is to reveal enough about the story to lure the reader in without giving away too much of it, just a sense of what’s at stake, the kind the journey you’re proposing. That can be achieved through small but deliberately concrete details–the lack of curtains, the vague mention of the lack of need of security.

Michael Noll

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The father’s kidnapping is juxtaposed with the birth of the narrator’s son, and this juxtaposition makes a lot of sense (death and life), but then you introduce the dog and its wounded paw, which fits in terms of the sense of being wounded. But, it also complicates the imagery, making it difficult to think in the fairly simple terms of birth and death. I’m curious if the dog was always in the story–or if the baby was always in it. I imagine it could be tempting to start out with a simpler story and then gradually make it more complex.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I think both of them were in the story since the very beginning. I don’t plan ahead the topics in my stories or even the personalities or circumstances of the characters that populate them. Usually it all starts with a character showing up in my mind in the form of a haunting image. In the case of “Madrid,” it was the image of the first box that appears in the story. The moment I saw it I knew exactly what it contained, but that was it. Writing the story then became an investigation around that image, trying to find out who was the recipient of that box, what had happened to him. As I kept working on the story I realized that he was the son of a man who had disappeared, that he’d just had his first son, and that his dog was sick. It all came together at once. I would like to say that I get to make decisions about the characters in my stories, but that’s not the case. They show up as they are, and keep haunting me until I put their story on paper. The most I can do is to highlight one aspect of their personality over others less relevant to the story in order to build a compelling narrative. What you leave out in a story is many times more important than what you keep in.

Michael Noll

The story ends with a kind of ghostly appearance and involves some pretty weighty dialogue. This scene could have been unbearably sentimental, a kind of literary Touched by an Angel, but it’s not that at all. What was your approach to this scene, especially the dialogue? Did you struggle to keep it from being overwhelmed by the significance of the moment, the way last lines between characters (and real people) are often overwhelmed with the realization that the end has come?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

That section of the story was actually one of the easiest to write. These two characters had a very clear idea of what they wanted to communicate through that exchange since the beginning. What I personally like about it is that both characters remain honest and true to their feelings throughout, regardless of the significance of the moment. They stay fragile and funny and cynical and confused, and neither one of them tries to “make sense” of this encounter, or to purposely deliver any message to the reader–their transformation as characters, if you will, emerges from their acceptance of the moment as it comes. My work there was to make sure that I didn’t interfere with the relationship between them or try to force the ending of the story or the direction of this final exchange to a perfect closure.

My personal opinion is that dialogue works best when we let characters express what they really want, and then work with that material, trying to incorporate it organically into the story, instead of forcing them to say what we think would be “better” to advance the story. Also, if I may add, having unexpected twists in dialogue exchanges is always useful to enhance their impact. This is a pretty dramatic, emotionally charged, scene, and yet there are some really funny or just downright absurd lines in it. I think that’s what, hopefully, makes it work.

Michael Noll

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's essay, "Keepsakes from Across the Border," was published as one of The New York Times "Private Lives" essays.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s essay, “Keepsakes from Across the Border,” was published as one of The New York Times’ “Private Lives” essays.

You published an essay in The New York Times about taking your kids to Mexico for the first time. You grew up there, and so you saw in their experience of the country the same wonder and bafflement that you saw on your early trips to the United States. It’s a sweet essay about universal experience. And yet, many of the readers’ comments were blistering, accusing the piece of bigotry against Mexicans, of all things, and also of simplistic assumptions about Americans—which other commenters complicated by spouting racist garbage. The reaction to the essay seemed to sum up a kind of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for Mexican, Mexican-American, and Hispanic writers in the United States. As a writer, do you just have to ignore all of that? Is that even possible? How do you approach your work in what seems like such a charged, toxic environment?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

First I’d like to say that I don’t perceive the environment in which I write as especially charged or toxic, just the opposite. The encouragement, support, and opportunities my work and I have received over the last few years have been just incredible. Also, maybe because of my journalistic background, or maybe because I’m morbidly curious, I’m one of those rare writers who look forward to reading all kinds of comments from readers–they’re like little pieces of characterization in and of themselves. Commenters reveal so much about themselves in those posts, especially in both the most scathing and the most heartfelt ones, and I find that fascinating.

All of that said, one of the things that you must assume as a writer since the very beginning, regardless of your background, is that your work is public and everyone is free to have and express an opinion about it. Some people will relate to, or even like, your work, and many others won’t. It’s impossible to write something that pleases everybody. That’s why I think the writer should only write for herself. Once a story or an essay is finished, I, of course, hope many people will connect with it, and I love when a reader reaches out to say he or she liked what I wrote, but none of that matters when I’m writing.

At the same time, a negative opinion is, after all, a reaction to your work, emotional, intellectual or otherwise, which is pretty great. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is that readers welcome her work with indifference. As writers, I think we should aim at eliciting intense, memorable reactions on our readers, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The nature of those reactions is, to a great extent, beyond my control and, therefore, none of my business.

Originally published in February 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

14 Feb
The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped.

The linked stories in Barefoot Dogs follow the members of a wealthy Mexican family after their patriarch, José Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped. Read essays by writers responding to the book at Books Are Not a Luxury.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white-hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Barefoot Dogs,” originally published as “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can read the story here or in the collection.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white-hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white-hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white-hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white-hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white-hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: