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.

An Interview with Óscar Martínez

12 Feb
Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

Óscar Martínez is a staff writer and editor at El Faro and the author of The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.

Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants to the United States through Mexico. His reports were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro, collected in the book Los migrantes que no importan, and translated into English as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez lives in El Salvador and edits El Faro‘s “Sala Negra,” a continuing investigation of gang violence and organized crime in Central America.

In this interview, Martínez discusses telling violent stories, the verisimilitude of a hit man, and planning trips into areas controlled by drug cartels. You can read Martínez’s original answers in Spanish, along with English translations. (Thanks to Chris Dammert for helping with translation and interpretation.)

To read the first chapter of The Beast and exercises on ending stories and distinguishing fact from fiction in essays, click here.

Michael Noll

You write about Saúl, a 19-year-old who is deported from Los Angeles to Guatemala. He is beaten and captured by a gang led by a man who turns out to be his father. The story ends this way: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.” That last sentence is stunningly short. How did you know or figure out which details to leave out and which to include?

Óscar Martínez

For me, there is a logic to the narration of violence: don’t embellish or elaborate what is already a very heavy subject. To add my assessment to Saul’s already convincing story would have been a distraction. His story is valuable just for that: how distinct and forceful it is. The only proof I have that it is true is because he told it to me in such a very frank way and with a context that made it plausible. I obviously never knew his father. Sometimes the narrator of nonfiction puts the reader in this dilemma: do you believe me or not believe me? It’s your decision.

Para mí hay una lógica en la narración de la violencia: no pretendas exagerar, no pretendas engordar lo que ya es pesado de por sí. Agregar mis valoraciones a la contundente historia de Saúl hubiera estado de más. Hubiera generado distracción. Su historia-mínima es valiosa por eso, por lo contundente, por lo integral, por lo sucinta. La única prueba que tengo de que es verdad es que así lo creo, que me lo contó de una manera que me pareció franca y que en el contexto su historia es verosímil. Yo, evidentemente, nunca conocí a su padre. A veces, un narrador de no ficción pone en ese dilema a su lector: ¿me crees o no me crees? Es tu decisión.

Michael Noll

You describe a migrant on the train as crucified on the front of the car and talking with his cousin and two Nicaraguans. Other writers might have focused on the danger but not the dull routine. How were you able to find this balance?

Óscar Martínez

Other writers would have ruined the story. This is how it happened, how it was told to me. It was right this way. The daily nature of the scene adds verisimilitude to the lives of these people: Who the hell flees, kills, dies all the time? People need to shit, get tired, play cards, eat, discuss, fall in love, and think. If they don’t, they don’t exist. Who empathizes with Rambo?  Can you see your brother or father as a hit man all the time? I don’t think so. Sometimes in nonfiction we create Martians, people who cannot exist. We take pieces of them that are thrilling. But that kind of story, without those real moments of calm, would be boring, empty.

Otros escritores habrían arruinado entonces la escena. Así ocurrió, así me lo relató. Así era justo contarlo. Lo cotidiano de la escena agrega verosimilitud a las vidas de estas personas: ¿Quién demonios huye, mata, muere todo el tiempo? Los personajes necesitan cagar, estar cansados, jugar cartas, comer, discutir, enamorarse, peinarse. Si no, no existen. ¿Alguien puede sentir empatía por Rambo? ¿Alguien puede ver reflejado a su hermano o a su padre en un sicario a tiempo completo? No lo creo. A veces, en la no ficción creamos marcianos, gente que no puede existir, de quienes solo recortamos aquello que es emocionante. La acción, sin sus remansos reales, es aburrida, vacía.

Michael Noll

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

El Faro is the first online newspaper in El Salvador and one of the leading sources of investigative reporting in Central America. Óscar Martínez edits Sala Negra, which focuses on organized crime.

You often became a participant in your story. For example, your photographer frightened bandits off the train by shining all of his lights at them. As a result, I wondered why the cartels allowed you to move about in their areas. Are they so powerful that they simply don’t care if anyone finds out what they’re doing? Are they so focused on drugs that someone interested in migrants doesn’t matter? Now, you’re working with Sala Negra. Have the cartels and organized crime organizations become less tolerant of your reporting?

Óscar Martínez

The simple reason: time. I had time, we created a project with my paper that allowed me to do pre-production on each one of my trips. I had time to find a reliable source to plan my route, to find hostels. In short, to crack the system of the criminal world. Sometimes we would get counterintelligence against the mafias in order to penetrate their areas. With respect to life at Sala Negra: yes, it is more difficult. El Salvador is not Mexico, where I could take a trip to Tamaulipas or a trip by train to Tenosique and then return to a city like Mexico City, where I was anonymous. We would go one month and then we would take time to write what we had seen, to edit the photographs. In San Salvador, even though I live a privileged life, I live much closer to that black mass all the time.

La respuesta es sencilla: tiempo. Tuve tiempo, creamos un proyecto junto a mi periódico que me permitió hacer pre-producción de cada uno de mis viajes. Yo tenía el tiempo que deseaba para encontrar a la fuente de confianza, para planificar mi ruta, para permanecer en un albergue. En fin: para quebrar esa lógica de dominio criminal. A veces, hacíamos contra-inteligencia ante las mafias para poder penetrar en sus zonas. Respecto a la vida ahora en Sala Negra: sí, es más difícil. El Salvador no es México, donde yo realizaba una incursión a Tamaulipas o un viaje en tren o una visita a Tenosique y luego volvía a una ciudad como DF, donde era anónimo. Íbamos un mes y luego nos retirábamos para escribir lo que habíamos visto, para editar las fotografías. En San Salvador, aunque mi vida es privilegiada, vives mucho más cerca de esa masa oscura todo el tiempo.

Michael Noll

In an interview with The Texas Observer, you said that people in the United States have “no idea at all that what the migrants are going through is actually a humanitarian crisis.” The same is true in Mexico. Many people don’t know or don’t want to know. How does it affect the way you tell the story when you’re one of the first people to tell this story?

Óscar Martínez

For me it was a luxury. Being one of the first was what gave us such a wide, panoramic view, unlimited possibility, virgin territory in many places. Tenosique criminals never imagined that an international reporter would be interested in getting to Ranch La Victoria or Macuspana, which was why they didn’t have any way to detect us. That being said, it was a ninth-month process to organize the book. To tell what hasn’t been told much makes the task even greater because you have a blank page and the possibilities are unlimited. You have notebooks that are full, hours of recording, videos, photographs, and yet a blank page that’s asking, from all of this, what will you tell? And what will you leave out?

Para mí eso fue un lujo. Ser de los primeros fue justamente lo que nos dio un panorama tan amplio, unas posibilidades ilimitadas, un terreno virgen en muchos lugares. Los criminales de Tenosique nunca se imaginaron que un reportero internacional se interesaría por llegar al Rancho La Victoria o a Macuspana, por eso no tenían controles para detectarlo. Eso sí, fue un reto de nueve meses ordenar el libro. Contar lo que se ha contado poco duplica el reto ante la página en blanco, porque las posibilidades siguen siendo interminables. Tienes libretas llenas, horas de grabación, videos, fotografías, y una página en blanco que te pregunta: ¿Qué de todo eso contarás? Y por tanto, ¿qué dejarás de contar?

Originally published in May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

AWP and The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction

8 Feb

unknownThis fall, I’ll have the privilege of publishing a book inspired by this blog: a collection of writing exercises accompanied by one-page excerpts from the novels and stories that inspired them. The book is titled The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, and it’s forthcoming from A Strange Object.

This week at the AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., I’ll moderate a panel on narrative structure with the authors of four of the novels excerpted in the book: LaShonda Barnett, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, and Daniel José Older. Their books are—and I’m understating this—freaking awesome, and I can’t wait to pick their brains. If you’re around, come say hello. Here are the details:

A Field Guide for the Craft of Fiction: Finding Structure

Virginia Barber Middleton Stage, Exhibit Halls D & E, Convention Center, Level Two
Thursday, February 9, 2017
12:00 pm to 1:15 pm

Following the panel, be sure to stop by A Strange Object’s table (421-T), where I’ll be hanging out with a special preview of the book.

I’ll also moderate a panel about writing fresh narratives about class, featuring the writers Kelli Ford, Rene S. Perez II, Natalia Sylvester, and Justin St. Germain:

Beyond Rags to Riches: New Approaches to Writing about Class

AWP Bookfair Stage, Exhibit Halls D & E, Washington Convention Center, Level Two
Friday, February 10, 2017
3:00 pm to 4:15 pm

Finally, as Program Director for the Writers’ League of Texas, I’ll be holding down the fort and talking up Texas at the Writers’ League table: 756-T. Come say hello!

How to End a Story

7 Feb
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Essay Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

An Interview with Shannon Perri

2 Feb
Shannon Perri's story, "The Resurrection Act" was published in Joyland Magazine and the journals 2016 Publisher's Picks.

Shannon Perri’s story, “The Resurrection Act” was published in Joyland Magazine and the journals 2016 Publisher’s Picks.

Shannon Perri is an MFA candidate at Texas State University and holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas. Her stories have appeared in literary journals such as Buffalo Almanack, Fiddleblack, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. She lives in Austin with her husband and menagerie of pets.

To read Perri’s story “The Resurrection Act” and an exercise on setting up endings, click here.

In this interview, Perri discusses adding a POV to her story, foreshadowing without losing believability, and avoiding thematic commentary.

Michael Noll

The story is called “The Resurrection Act” and, appropriately enough, it’s structured around a single performance of a magician’s act. But there’s also a lot of backstory about Earl, and so it’s probably possible that the story could have expanded beyond the tight frame of the one performance. How did you decide on the story’s frame? Did it ever threaten to spill out of it?

Shannon Perri

I never considered allowing the present narrative to span more than a day. I wrote this story while on a Roald Dahl kick. In his short stories, I love how closely Dahl thrusts humor and horror against each other and was inspired to attempt a similar tonal feat. Beyond that vague impulse, I had nothing. I combed through the Internet for inspiration and stumbled upon an article about a real-life magician who died while performing a burial act. I was immediately drawn to his story and decided to use it as a skeleton for my own. The first draft of my story was told only from Earl’s point of view and did not feature the wife’s prominent role in his demise. This version fell flat. The tension grew from adding Cornella’s perspective. I do not always write this way—backwards—but I think starting from the end helped contain the story’s focus.

Michael Noll

The story begins with two sentences that focus on Earl’s keys, and the first time I read it, I thought this was strange—until, of course, I got to the end. Were those keys always present in the opening paragraph, or were they added after you’d written the ending?

Shannon Perri

The keys were not always present. In the first draft, the story opened with Earl alone in the motel room. I received feedback in a workshop that it would be valuable to see Earl and Cornella together before the performance, which made sense to me. When adding this scene, the key detail came out organically. I didn’t realize how well it connected thematically, at least not consciously, until I returned to it. My initial concern was to ensure that the writing was deeply rooted in Earl’s point-of-view. That said, part of the fun of crafting this story was considering how to foreshadow in ways that (hopefully) enhance the reader’s satisfaction, yet without sacrificing believability and surprise.

Michael Noll

The title lends itself to a lot of thematic readings, but the religion in the story is connected to character: Earl almost dies and begins to question his beliefs, and his wife is content with accepting the things she’s been taught. After the story’s climax, it moves to a church. A bad version of this story would beat the reader over the head with some message, but that doesn’t happen here. I don’t really know what the message would be. Were you ever tempted to give the story a clearer “message”?

Shannon Perri

I personally don’t think fiction’s job is to provide clear answers or “messages.” I’m much more interested in reading and writing about the nuances of the human experience, and if I ever feel an agenda lurking in my own work, I do everything I can to complicate it, though perhaps that in itself is an agenda. Yes, religion plays into this story, but I would hate for a reader to walk away thinking it either promotes or condemns Christianity. Not every small-town Christian would respond to Earl’s act the way Cornella does. I’m more interested in exploring why this particular religious woman feels as she does rather than making any sort of blanket commentary.

Michael Noll

Next week, I’ll be at AWP, moderating a panel on writing about class. I couldn’t help reading this story with that panel in mind. It’s a story that takes place in a small, rural town, a place where people say things like “That ain’t no way to go.” Other ways of being and seeing the world are hinted at when reporters from Houston show up. Did you think about class at all as you wrote this story—about class distinctions and the ways they color the characters’ actions and ideas?

Shannon Perri

I thought a lot about place. In 8th grade, my family moved from Austin to the small town of Burnet, Texas. Perhaps because I was an outsider as the new kid, the sharp contrasts of these two worlds leapt out at me, much more than their similarities, which looking back, I can see, too. If I grew up from birth in a rural place, who knows if I’d be as interested in exploring this setting, but when you’re a middle schooler in a new world order, you pay attention. I find that again and again small town life appears in my writing. All that said, when considering influences such as class, gender, religion, region, etc., I try to make sure their impacts derive from relational experiences. For this story, I tried to consider the various relationships and daily interactions that Cornella and Earl each have in their family life and community—both what readers learn about on the page and not. And of course class, gender, religion, and region inherently affect those relationships. My hope is that using relational experiences as a lens helps to capture character specifics and the intersection of so many of these “macro” influences.

February 2017

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

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