Tag Archives: Are You Running Away?

An Interview with Bess Winter

12 Mar
Bess Winter's fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter’s fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has lived in Kansas City, MO, Victoria, BC, Sackville, NB, Bowling Green, OH, and Cincinnati, OH. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She was Podcast Editor at The Collagist, served as a Guest Fiction Editor for the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and is currently a PhD-fiction student at University of Cincinnati.

To read her story “Are You Running Away?” and an exercise on writing quick-starting first paragraphs, click here.

In this interview, Winter discusses quick-starting stories, quick characterizations, and writing past epiphanies.

Michael Noll

I love how fast the story opens, moving from “fuck school” to a mysterious possibility for how to get school canceled in one short paragraph. Did the story always begin this quickly? Or did you have to cut and revise your way to this beginning?

Bess Winter

The story always began this quickly. In fact, I’m most comfortable with stories that are on the shorter side, so it takes a lot of coaxing and prodding to get me to write long, well, anything: sentences, paragraphs, etc. I’m envious of writers who can blast out a lot of material and then scale back. Also, because this is a story that’s more about what happens because of, and coincidental to, “the plan,” rather than the plan, itself, it felt best to get the big stuff out of the way A.S.A.P. and move on to the less causal elements of story. Make the most outrageous stuff a given. They’re going to get school canceled. Pipes will be involved.

Michael Noll

The story also quickly establishes characters: Val doesn’t care, and the narrator finds this trait interesting when everyone else finds it grating. Again, I’m curious about your approach to these characterizations. Do you write your way into them? In other words, do the characters take shape on the page, and eventually you’re able to sum them up quickly? Or do you start with a clash of opposites and see what happens?

Bess Winter

Usually I start with a key characteristic that serves the story I want to tell, and get that down on the page early. So you could say it’s more a “clash of opposites” than anything, though Val and the narrator aren’t necessarily opposite to each other. Then I build the character around that characteristic, try to add complexity. In the case of this story, and of many stories, I actually have a specific person in mind—often someone I’ve known in the past, but sometimes even film actors or historical figures—who either physically or emotionally resembles the character.

Michael Noll

The story expands in the middle, adding the perspective of a teacher and jumping out of the present action to past incidents. Then, it moves back and forth between these moments and the present action. Is this a structure that you use often? Or is it particular to this story?

Bess Winter

Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

This is a structure I’ve used a few times over the past few years, particularly because “Are You Running Away?” was intended to be part of a triptych. All three of the stories in the triptych were originally going to be structured this way, jumping through time and using this sort of filmic technique, a braided narrative. But it turned out that the third story in the series just didn’t work. Structurally, it wasn’t quite in line with the other two, and the subject matter was actually too close to the bone to make good fiction.

Recently I’ve started to use a similar, but looser, structure to write stories that deal specifically with the movement of objects in time. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a big influence on my thinking about this. He doesn’t quite “braid” in that novel so much as “saddle stitch” or loosely join different narratives at touch-points.

Michael Noll

The event at the heart of this story is astonishingly awful. As you were writing it, did you ever consider pulling back or moving in another direction? Or did you always feel pretty certain where the story was headed?

Bess Winter

In terms of actually hacking open the pipes, I knew the story was going in that direction when I sat down to write; the act, and its implications, was the idea that spurred the story, and was loosely based on an event that happened at my own all-girls school when I attended in the late ’90s-early ’00s. Maybe the story could have veered away from the actual hacking open of the pipe, focused more on the dissolution between friends or something else about their relationship. But, honestly, I was so dead set on writing about the pipe incident that it never occurred to me to go another way.

But, in writing the story, I did struggle—not with how far the event would go, as the natural dramatic shape of the fiction, and its style, seemed to demand the worst thing, but with how the characters would deal with it. There’s a point in the story (when she’s sitting on the grass in the park) where the narrator could have had some sort of epiphany, at least tried to make things right. Irony might demand that she try, and fail, to fix things. But when I sat down to write that section in the park—which was actually an addition—the failed epiphany didn’t feel right. I realized, at that point, this character’s flaw is that she’s a teenager—incredibly self-absorbed, melancholy, selfish and, in some ways, as spoiled and tortured as Val. In fact, she’s not very different from Val, at all, and it felt better for her to become more Val-like than heroic in that moment. That’s not to say Val is a horrible person, either, just a confused person—as many teenage girls are. If anything, this story actually helped me empathize with the sort of girl who used to tease and torture me in high school.

March 2015

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

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How to Write a Quick-Starting First Paragraph

10 Mar
Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by volunteers—on the weekend, at night, when they could be reading a favorite novel or, who knows, parasailing. Imagine yourself in these volunteers’ shoes, a tall stack of submissions in front of you and an approaching deadline to complete them. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your story easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention?

One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. One of the quickest and most interesting first paragraphs that I’ve read lately is from Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” It was published in Covered w/ Fur, the weekly digital magazine published by Austin’s indy press A Strange Object. You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Here is the first paragraph. Watch how quickly it kicks into gear:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

In just 51 words, the story introduces two characters, a sense of their personalities and relationship, and a mystery: what are the pipes and how will they cancel school. How does the paragraph do this? By beginning with drama, not information. Think about what we’re not told: the characters’ ages, the nature of the situation, the time of day. Rather than set up the drama, the story immediately zooms in on a moment when a choice is made: Wouldn’t it be great it school were canceled? What is said next (Yeah, it would be great) might not seem like a conscious decision, it functions that way, giving Val permission to proceed. In other words, it’s sometimes not enough to simply introduce a mystery. You also need to introduce a decision that leads to that mystery (even if that decision, at the time, seems like no decision at all).

Once that mystery has been set, you can spend time re-introducing the reader to your characters: who they are, their typical behavior.

In the second paragraph of “Are You Running Away?” Winter does exactly that:

She shoves everything aside. Goldenrod, green, purple study notes. Her chem binder clicks open and the sheets slide everywhere, across the Persian rug and the hardwood and into corners of the room and up against Rolph the snoring yellow lab. She steps on the notes, leaves her dirty shoeprints on them. She doesn’t care. I love Val because she doesn’t care about anything. The first time we met, in the changing room before gym, she looked me up and down and said, Those boobs are low. I could have hated her for that, I guess, but instead I was like, who says that? And I said, Thanks! And, from then on, we were friends, even when everyone else pushed her away. Even when they asked Her? Why? and made sour faces. Later, we snuck things from the pockets of the backpacks they looped onto the outside of their lockers when they went to gym: silver bracelets, digital watches, lip gloss.

Though the paragraph is building character, it also deepens the mystery from the story’s opening. If the characters are already stealing things and acting in other socially unacceptable ways, what else will they do? If I’m a reader working my way through a slush pile, my attention has been grabbed before the end of the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s start a story quickly, with drama, using “Are You Running Away?” by Bess Winter as a model:

  1. Introduce a strong desire. In Winter’s story, the desire is the nearly universal desire of so many school stories and real-life students: get out of school. In other words, the desire doesn’t need to be something we’ve never seen before. Most desires are pretty common. Why else would love stories and stories of adultery be among the oldest we possess?
  2. Introduce a plan to satisfy the desire. At the very least, a character could say, “I have a plan.” But you can do better than that. Hint at the nature of the plan. Be sly. In Winter’s story, Val mentions pipes but not what they’re for or how they might be used. If you read the story, you’ll see that the plan is pretty simple—it’s horrible and frightening, but simple, too. You don’t need something convoluted. The important thing is to tease the reader. In this case, Val also teases the narrator, who is allowed to discover the plan along with us.
  3.  Make the plan hinge on someone’s assent. Someone needs to give the plan the go-ahead. The need for this agreement or cooperation forces the character with the plan to be conniving, to try to persuade another character to go along. Without this external approval, the plan may roll out too easily, without encountering opposition or obstacles. In short, you’re making the characters act on different levels from the very beginning, and those different levels will give the story room to grow and develop.

Good luck.

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