Tag Archives: Bret Anthony Johnston

4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?

 

Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?

 

Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.

 

Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you’ve taken the challenge, that means you’ve written approximately one-third of a novel. Since novels tend to follow a three-act structure, this also means you’re entering the second act—otherwise known the place novel manuscripts go to die. Why? First acts are relatively easy: you’ve got a burning idea, and you begin in a rush. At some point, though, that idea is going to run into the mechanical reality of the second act. The story often becomes larger, expanding beyond the original frame of the opening pages. Multiple narrative lines are more important than ever to sustain the tension. If you’re writing a first draft, you may be discovering that you don’t know where to go or what happens next. You’re writing aimless passages.

There is no easy solution to this problem; just ask any novelist. However, there are a few strategies that can give your prose direction until the overall structure of the novel reveals itself.

Here are twelve exercises to help push your novel forward, based on twelve great pieces of published writing.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

baj-bio-pic

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

donnajohnson_headshot_rgb

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 9.27.10 PM

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. Take a Detour Away from Plot

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky.

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky. He recently published a prequel to that book, the novel, Carrying Albert Home.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks. Homer Hickam offers a good example for how to temporarily derail a plot in his novel Carrying Albert Home:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track. (From Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam. Find the entire exercise here.)

12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

baj-bio-pic

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. How to Write a Story Ending

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.

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 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. One of the migrants he meets is 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 beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

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. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

An Interview with Bret Anthony Johnston

15 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's story collection, Corpus Christi, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. He has just published his first novel, Remember Me Like This.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s first book, Corpus Christi: Stories, was named Best Book of the Year by The Independent and the Irish Times. His new novel, Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a boy who disappears in Corpus Christi and then mysteriously turns up.

Bret Anthony Johnston new novel Remember Me Like This, tells the story of a Corpus Christi family whose young son disappeared for years and then mysteriously reappeared. A review in the Washington Post says that the book asks, “But what happens after the cable news hysteria fades away, and the mayor issues a proclamation and the tearful grandparents fly back home? Are these rare families like lottery winners who celebrate in public and then, in the months that follow, squander their good fortune?”

Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.

In this interview, Johnston discusses suspenseful imagery, the challenge of finding the right tone, and his approach to place in fiction.

To read an excerpt from Remember Me Like This and an exercise on setting the mood in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a body facedown in the water. This image doesn’t return until almost the end of the novel. In fact, it’s almost possible to forget about it since it’s not long before the drama of the novel takes over. What went into your decision to open the novel with that image? Did you worry that the reader would become impatient with wanting to return to it?

Bret Anthony Johnston

My hope was that the image would embed itself in the reader’s subconscious memory, that it would be something of a shadow that followed them through the story. I wanted them to wonder about the body; I wanted it to keep them from getting too comfortable in the story, to preclude them from taking survival for granted. That is, I wanted them to share the experience that the family endures. Starting the book that way seemed to invite a necessary kind of empathy. Of course you’re right, though, in that it’s almost possible to forget about the image. That’s the gamble I had to take so that when the body returns, the reader is jolted and yanked back toward a kind of raw vulnerability. I hope it works. If it didn’t, don’t tell me.

Michael Noll

The scene where Justin appears for the first time is really well done and uses a deft trick of misdirection. I can imagine that scene was difficult to write. The readers been waiting for it intently, and so there’s a need to both meet and confound their expectations. How did you approach that scene?

Bret Anthony Johnston

Your reading of the scene, the craft behind it, is incredibly accurate and I really appreciate such close reading, Michael. Thank you. What you’re pointing out, though, actually came with relative ease—meaning, it was stunningly difficult and time-consuming, but still not as difficult or time-consuming as other scenes—because it was the result of empathizing with the characters. I only had to understand what the characters would be feeling in that moment, and because I knew them well by that point in the book, their reactions were readily available. Once I understood that she would fixate on her memory him being afraid of snakes, I felt really at home in her reaction.

What took an enormous amount of time was striking the right balance in what might be called tone. I revised and revised and revised to get the scene to move evenly toward the revelation. I struggled with the pace for many drafts. I struggled with the cop’s reaction and the district attorney’s entrance. As you say, it was a scene that we were all waiting to see—not least the writer and the characters—and I took care not to speed through it or linger in an indulgent, self-defeating way. One of the pieces of advice that I regularly dole out to my students is to engage the opposite emotion of what the reader would expect, and I relied on that here. The expectation, I thought, would be hopefulness, but I didn’t think these characters had much hope left in them. I saw that as an opportunity, a way in.

Michael Noll

Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

The novel returns to certain places (the empty pool at the “half-razed TeePee Motel” and the Marine Lab). The places begin just as places where the characters go, but over the course of the novel, several of the most important events occur there. Did you have certain dramatic scenes in mind when you first introduced those places into the novel? Or, did you explore the places and return to them until the drama presented itself?

Bret Anthony Johnston

The latter. When I start writing anything, I have no intentions of any kind, and the novel was no different. I approach every piece of fiction the same way, which is to pay attention to the details, images, and artifacts of the story and take nothing for granted. My impulse is to reach backwards in a story rather to stretch forward, so I’m always asking myself what’s already in play that I can use again, that I can recycle in a manner that will reward the reader’s attention. It’s a mechanism of repetition and evolution. In this case, I returned to various places until those places evolved to mean something other than what they had. I think a lot of new writers are excited by the prospect of constantly bringing in new material, new imagery or settings or objects, but I think the more satisfying move is often to juggle what you already have so that the reader sees something familiar in a new, more revelatory light.

Michael Noll

It’s been ten years since Corpus Christi: Stories was published. Since then you’ve continued to write stories, and you’ve also published a book of creative writing exercises and written a film documentary about skateboarder Danny Way. Plus, you direct the writing program at Harvard. In other words, you’ve been pretty busy. And yet, I can imagine there was pressure to produce a novel, especially since your first book was so well received. How were you able to resist that pressure, to discover the novel you wanted to write and then write it at a pace that would allow it to become the book you had in mind?

Bret Anthony Johnston

You’re absolutely right about the pressure, but I regard any kind of pressure as a privilege. I’m incredibly fortunate to have editors and readers who want to read my work, and I refuse to take that as a given. Honestly, it still surprises me. It really does. It surprises me to the degree that I don’t fully believe anyone when they ask to read something I’ve written; I think they’re just being nice.

And yet it’s always been clear to me that I’m a slow writer and there will be years between the books that I’m lucky enough to publish. Meaning, I don’t want to publish something until I think it’s ready, until I’ve written the book I want to read, because it will be a long, long time before I have the opportunity to redeem myself. What this means is that I’ve missed many deadlines. I know I missed at least three for the novel, though maybe I missed more. The book just wasn’t ready, and publishing it would have seemed a kind of malpractice. I always gave the publisher the opportunity to cancel my contract, and I apologized profusely, but I also wouldn’t show them the book until it was ready. I worked with an amazing editor named Kendra Harpster, and she was beyond supportive. Not only would the book not have been published without her, the published book wouldn’t be nearly as successful without her guidance. It’s another way that I got lucky. I’ve been lucky my whole career. Lucky and slow, that’s my life as a writer. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set the Mood

13 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. The opening shots of any given episode of Breaking Bad, for instance, are pretty different from the opening of any episode of Parks and Recreation. One is almost always foreboding and dark, and the other is light, fast, and witty. Even if you were to encounter these shows with no knowledge of them, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered.

Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This. The book is set on the Texas coast, in and around Mustang Island, a place that can inspire many emotions. But the novel quickly focuses on a specific mixture of them that hints at the story to come. You can read an excerpt at the Random House website.

How the Story Works

Most writers are probably familiar with John Gardner’s famous exercise for emotion in description: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” This is a brilliant exercise—unless you can’t do it. I’ve seen very good writers in workshops tackle this exercise and come up with nothing. Yet, Gardner’s goal of establishing emotion and mood through description is still a valid one; the thing that might be tripping up some writers is the exercise’s focus on an emotion stemming from a specific event: the son’s death. Emotion and mood can also be general, as seen in this paragraph from the first chapter of Remember Me Like This. Pay attention to the word choices Johnston makes, the way they seem to have been pulled from a stream with a pan that lets all but a certain kind of word sift out the bottom:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.

You may have paused at these words and phrases: gauzy, glomming, close, pale as caliche, played-out, dragging, holding out, humid and harsh, stung like wasps, surrendered, cut bait, dogged, scalding. And, of course, there’s the static image of the cars lined up, waiting for the ferry. Taken together, the words don’t describe a particular emotion so much as a general sense of an end of things. If this was a film, it might be called a tone poem: the mood is unmistakable. As readers, we’re made uneasy.

And then there’s that last line: “Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.” Its tone is markedly different, even the opposite of everything that came before it. It might be tempting, if reading this in a workshop, to suggest cutting the sentence. But, in fact, it might be the most important line in the paragraph. It’s the postcard from Hawaii taped to the bathroom mirror in a Chicago apartment in February—the reminder, good or bad, that there are other ways of being and other perspectives on the world. Placing this bright line in a dreary description makes the dreariness even harder to bear. It also suggests that there are entities in the world that relish conditions that the rest of us find unbearable.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set the mood in a story, using the passage from Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel Remember Me Like This as a model:

  1. Choose the place to describe. Be specific. Johnston shows us a particular spot on the beach. In the prologue, he focuses on the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi.
  2. Choose the moment to describe it. Descriptions tend to focus on moments of transition. So, Johnston shows us the beach as the weather is driving the surfers, fishermen, and sunbathers away. The bridge in the prologue is shown at its beginning and then in the moments before and after a group of people walking over discover something terrible. So, think about what often happens in the place you’ve chosen. Or think about an incident that occurs there in your story. Describe the place just before or after that moment has occurred.
  3. Choose the emotion or mood. Unlike your choice of place, specificity is less important here. It might even be easier to think in terms that are tangential to emotions: positive, negative, bright, dark, still, frenetic. Emotions like joy, sorrow, anger, or jealousy can be too pointed and produce obvious personifications: skies shedding tears, happy breezes, etc. Leave room for the language to surprise you. Sometimes you’ll discover lines like this one from Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: “a child up on its knees on the mattress howled out of a face like a fist.”
  4. Choose a narrative arc. Think of the description as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, Johnston begins with the weather conditions, which drive the people away, who then sit in line for the ferry while the porpoises swim. In other words, the end of the description should be different from the beginning: a narrative arc, no matter how small, is a way to ensure this.
  5. Write the description. Keep all of the above in mind: the moment of transition, the arc, the mood. After each phrase or sentence, take a look back at the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in it and ask yourself if they can be changed to fit the mood. Play around with the diction. In Johnston’s paragraph, the difference between “small waves” and “small played-out waves” is small but significant. That difference is the source of much of the pleasure in writing. Challenge yourself to lean toward the mood at every opportunity. If you lean too far, you can always pull back.

It’s possible that these steps may seem overwhelming. You might wonder if Johnston approached the paragraph in this way or if he simply wrote it. The odds are, he just wrote it, and perhaps you will, too. But one drawback to modeling your work after published writing is that you’re trying to achieve the same effect as someone who’s been working for many years. As beginners, we must sometimes parse out the processes that more experienced artists seem to manage naturally, without thinking. So, give yourself permission to scramble these steps, to forget some or focus more heavily on others. Let yourself experiment. You’re giving your imagination room to work.

Good luck!

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