Tag Archives: creative writing prompts

My Book Has a Cover!

30 Jan

One of the things I’ve always admired A Strange Object (beyond the inventive, smart story collections they have published) is the beautiful covers they create for their books. I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. Now it’s official:

The cover was created by Austin-based artist and set designer Lisa Laratta. She actually built the topographical feature in the image. On the back of the book, the image wraps around and continues. It’s a cover that speaks to the explorative nature of the book, investigating the types of fiction that can be written. It also reminds me of the maps my wife and I have used when hiking in New Mexico and the maps I used to pore over when my father went to the local federal office to register his CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) ground; the acres withdrawn from crop production and reserved for grassland had been shaded in by hand with colored pencil by my father. Even though I knew every part of the farm, seeing those same fields from a different perspective made me realize how much there was to discover about it. It’s the same way I feel about reading great fiction in order to expand my skill as a writer.

To learn more about The Writer’s Field Guide and to pre-order the book, click here.

 

 

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4 Strategies for Creating Compelling Characters

23 Jan

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” Buy the book here.

Last week, Austin experienced two days of real winter, which meant my 6 and 8-year-olds had no school. Because it was cold and icy, playing outside wasn’t any fun, so we did what anyone would do: watched movies and built medieval siege equipment out of pencils. They both really wanted to watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but I didn’t feel like explaining all of the sex jokes, so instead I introduced them to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid, and so I was surprised at how corny it is. It wasn’t just the special effects (skeletons that look like Halloween decorations); the plot is pretty silly as well. But that didn’t matter. The movie holds up, and my kids loved it, because Harrison Ford creates a captivating character. We would have watched him in any movie—and throughout the 80s and 90s, American audiences did.

The movie was a reminder that if you can create a great character, the rest of the story often falls into place. Or, at the very least, the story gets easier to tell.

You can find four exercises designed to create captivating characters in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They exercises are inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: the novels The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales and Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older and the stories “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus and “Proving Up” by Karen Russell.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide 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 the first steps in each exercise:

Create Characters with a Single, Definitive Trait, inspired by The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A DEFINING TRAIT. It can be something physical like size, hair color, or an odd body part; in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops, as everyone remembers, has one eye. You can make the trait behavioral: a tic or disorder (as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), a pattern of behavior (laughing at the worst moments), or a temperament (rage, kindness). You can also use a piece of clothing or accessory; everyone knows that the Monopoly man has a cane and top hat.

 

Make Your Characters Into Something New, inspired by Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

  1. IDENTIFY THE TYPE OF CHARACTER. It’s no secret that characters fall into types: heroes/villains, protagonists/antagonists, detectives/ criminals, butt-kickers/butt-kickees, and lovers/love interests. Think about the role your character plays. Is she the one going on a trip? The stranger coming to town? For just a moment, think about your story in terms of those outlines we’re all familiar with. Which one are you writing?

 

Define Your Character’s Emotional Response to Conflict, inspired by “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus

  1. SKETCH THE OUTLINES OF THE CHARACTER’S CONFLICT. Marcus’s story uses the genre of apocalypse. People on earth are dying in seemingly large numbers. Not much else is revealed—and we don’t need much else. People are dying, and the living are searching for ways to survive. That’s the conflict. So, begin by stating your story’s own conflict in a sentence or two: _____ is happening, and this causes ____ to happen. This structure works for intimate conflicts as well as apocalyptic ones:

X had an affair, so Y ____.
X got sick, so Y ____.
X owed me money, so I ____.
X fell in love with Y, and Y _____.
X did ___, and so her best friend Y ____.

 

Generate Tension by Giving Characters Unequal Access to an Object of Desire, inspired by “Proving Up” by Karen Russell

  1. IDENTIFY THE OBJECT OF DESIRE. The object is often named in the title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Lord of the Rings, The Goldfinch. Or the object is implied by the genre: love, vengeance, the solution of a mystery. In most cases, the object is set before a character as a prize, but it’s only over time that the object gains personal importance to the character. This is especially true in mysteries: someone gives the detective a job, and at some point, that job becomes personal. (Sometimes there’s even a line: “Now it’s personal!”). So, even if the object seems a bit dry at the start, you’re at least giving yourself something to work with, a direction to point your character in.

 

Put these strategies to use, and you may have the next Indiana Jones at your fingertips.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

How to Keep Readers From Skimming Over Your Passages about Setting

11 Jan

Pre-orders available now.

I’ve always felt conflicted about the term “page turner.” I love thrilling novels as much as the next person and remember lying on the mattress on the floor of my bare-walled college apartment one summer, reading the latest Harry Potter novel until about four in the morning. But as much as I love dying to know what will happen, I just as equally loathe when I’m so compelled to reach the end that I start flipping ahead. That’s the wrong sort of page-turner. At the very least, the prose ought to hold your eye to every word.

The passages most likely to get skimmed by readers are descriptions of setting—and for good reason. Done badly, they are mere lists of adjectives and florid metaphors. Readers skim them because they don’t do anything. “Yes,” we think, “we get it: the mountains are tall and pretty. Now, move it along.”

The best writers can make descriptions of setting as interesting and compelling as the drama that follows. The trick is learning how to do it yourself.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from one novel and three stories: “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide 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 is step one for each exercise:

Take a Tour, inspired by “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley

  1. IDENTIFY THE MOTIVE FOR THE TOUR. The character leading the tour may have a destination in mind. Or the tour might be a way to kill time until some scheduled or expected moment. In McConigley’s case, the tour leads to both: a destination where Larson will make his request. This intention, or motive, is crucial. Without it, the characters are simply wandering around.

 

 

Break Setting into Neighborhoods, inspired by “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A NEIGHBORHOOD TO INHABIT. To start, choose a common term (downtown, suburbs, etc.) that broadly applies to the neighborhood where your character lives, works, or spends time. Imagine that the character (or someone else) is explaining the location of this neighborhood. What phrase or term would be used? Not every character will necessarily use the same term. People who live downtown often view anything beyond their borders as the suburban hinterland, but people living outside of downtown will say things like, “I’m only 10 minutes from downtown,” suggesting that the suburbs are farther out. What does your character (and others) call your character’s neighborhood?

Give Setting a Human Geography, inspired by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER BEHAVIOR TO OBSERVE. Just as people who buy cars or have babies tend to pay close attention to other cars and other parents with babies, all people/characters tend to notice certain behaviors more than others. The question is this: What concerns are on your character’s mind? Someone who just bought a car, for example, is worried about buying the best/cheapest/safest one. What decision has your character made or what decisions must the character make on a daily basis? The rationale for those decisions will likely cause the character to notice people with the same rationale or, perhaps, who make different choices.

Manipulate Characters with Setting, inspired by “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis

  1. START WITH A PRONOUN. Davis’ story begins with we. It’s impersonal; we could be anyone. By the end of the sentence, it’s clear that the identity of we is wholly contingent on the setting. We are the people on the airplane. Nothing else about them matters. So, give yourself a pronoun: we, he, she, us, they, it. Don’t use a name. Avoid nailing down details for now. The point is to give your story a warm body, nothing more.

 

Setting should be more than a backdrop. The best writers find ways to bring setting and drama together, forcing them to interact.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

How to Start and Keep Writing After a Long Break

5 Jan

Publication Date: February 27, 2018. Pre-orders available now by clicking here.

It’s the start of a new year, a time when dormant writing projects are taken out of drawers and dusted off and new projects are finally started. You feel as though you only need to reach out and grab the book out of the ether. Then, of course, reality sets in. You stare at the void of the blank page, and it stares back. Soon, you remember an errand that needs to be run, some housework that has been put off, a work email that needs to be answered, and before long the book has returned to the drawer.

Starting a project and continuing to write often requires a set of exercises designed to get words on the page. Give yourself enough of those words, enough images and interesting situations, and eventually your writing brain will take over.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: “The Heart” by Amelia Gray, “Lazarus Dying” by Owen Egerton, Jam on the Vine by Lashonda Katrice Barnett, and Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett. These stories and novels are as different from one another as night and day, which means they offer very different but highly accessible approaches to setting up a situation and giving it the opportunity to grow into story.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide 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 the first steps in each exercise:

Drop an Elephant into the Room, inspired by “The Heart” by Amelia Gray

  1. FIND YOUR ELEPHANT. Because there are in nite possibilities for a story’s elephant, there are likely in nite ways to nd them. Let’s try two. First, dig into obsessions. Here’s a good way to identify them: imagine…you’re a guest on your favorite podcast. What are you talking about? If it’s Fresh Air by Terry Gross (not really a podcast, I know, but it’s where I fantasize myself being interviewed), then you’re probably talking about your life and childhood and where you come from. But the podcast could center on some aspect of pop culture—like Back to the Future Minute, the daily podcast that discusses the lm Back to the Future one minute at a time. (Yes, such a podcast really exists.) Almost all stories follow the writer’s interests or sensibilities. What are yours? Make a list. Brainstorm. Then pick one and search within it for some object (specific, tangible) to use as your elephant.

Give Your Characters What They Wish For, inspired by “Lazarus Dying” by Owen Egerton

  1. IDENTIFY WHAT THE CHARACTER WANTS. This should always be one of the first steps to writing a story. The only thing more boring than a character getting what she wants is a character sitting in a chair, not wanting anything. Most stories revolve around desires for common things: love, vengeance, money, possessions, security, certainty, self-validation (the ability to say, “I told you so”), or the resolution to some unresolved matter. Lazarus and his sisters desire life—and, more broadly, an escape from death and suffering. What does your character want? What keeps your character up at night?

Let a Character Respond to an Expected Scene, inspired by Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

  1. FIGURE OUT YOUR STORY’S EXPECTED SCENE. To do this, think about the premise of your story. If it involves ghosts, there will be an encounter with a ghost, right? If it’s a war story, someone’s going to kill or get killed. In a coming-of-age story, a character will be humiliated or embarrassed. Immigrant stories and American-abroad stories usually involve a moment of cultural difference, ignorance, or miscommunication. What is a scene that is promised by your premise? These scenes are usually the reason people want to read your type of story. Readers want to see encounters with ghosts. What do they want to see happen in your story?

Turn a Premise into Drama, inspired by Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett

  1. IDENTIFY THE SOURCE OF DANGER IN THE PREMISE. For many stories, this should be simple. If there’s a villain, you’ve found your danger. If something can be broken (contract, relationship, trust), there’s got to be a character who acts as the bull in the china shop. If someone doesn’t play by the rules (whatever the rules are), that person is the agent of danger. In Everett’s novel, the risk comes from the drug-dealing neighbor. He and his brother are the ones who will likely do something bad. So, ask yourself, who in your story has the potential to behave badly?

In this first section of the book, we’ll examine some of these skills and how great writers put them to work. They might not seem glamorous at first, but they’re the basic building blocks of the artistic vision. Learn these skills, and you’ll always have them at your fingertips, even when your artistic vision feels lost or dimmed.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

Big Changes Are Coming to Read to Write Stories in 2018

2 Jan

I’ve been posting writing exercises and author interviews at this blog for five years, for a total of around 150 interviews and almost 200 exercises. It all started when the journal American Short Fiction asked me to teach a few creative writing workshops, and I doled out some standard workshop advice, most of it phrased in the negative (“Don’t do this, don’t do that”) and someone finally asked the million-dollar question, “What should we do?” I didn’t have a great answer (or any answer), so I brought in some short stories that I admired and asked the students to read passages from them closely so that we could figure out how celebrated authors had handled the same issues that we were facing. From those close readings, I developed writing exercises for my students. When the classes came to an end, I wanted to keep creating exercises based on published work, and so I told my wife, “I’m going to start a blog,” and she said, “What is this, 1994?” (She was also the one who suggested I interview authors about their craft, one of the first being George Saunders, who graciously took time from being a genius to answer some of my questions.) Now, five years later, the blog has led to a book: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Publication Date: February 27, 2018. Pre-orders available now by clicking here.

The book contains all-new exercises based on one-page excerpts from 40 writers that I admire, including Alexander Chee, Gillian Flynn, Roxane Gay, William Gibson, Kiese Laymon, Laila Lalami, George Saunders, Benjamin Sáenz, Jim Shepard, Zadie Smith, and Jesmyn Ward but also writers who challenged me. Quite frankly, I didn’t get Ben Marcus when I read his work in graduate school. I also struggled at first with Marlon James’ deep dives into his characters’ voices in A Brief History of Seven Killings. I don’t read romance and read very little women’s fiction (which I’ve learned is a defined genre), but I kept seeing Jennifer Weiner’s byline on essays arguing for the respectability of those genres and thought I’d check out her work. I was jealous of Karen Russell because she found success so early. I put off reading Teju Cole for years because I thought his novel premise sounded pompous. Like so many MFA graduates (and non-MFA writers and readers), I thought I knew what I liked. Then I actually read the books I had been avoiding or had put down early and found that they were brilliant. I think about A Brief History of Seven Killings almost every time I sit down to write.

This is easy praise, of course. Marlon James has won so much acclaim that one day someone will rent one of his old apartments and find a shoebox of awards stored behind the furnace vent. Here is, perhaps, more surprising praise, for literary writers, at least: Jennifer Weiner is a hell of a writer. In her novel, Who Do You Love, she wrote a scene that was eerily similar to a scene that I had written in a failed novel, and her scene was so much better than mine, so sharply defined and hard-hitting, that I had one of those moments all writers encounter: I thought, “Why do I even do this?”

The reason I created this blog—the real reason—was because those exercises I created for my students made me a better writer. I was teaching myself, but not just about craft. All writers continually hone their craft. Anne Lamott once wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that you publish a book and feel elated, and then the next day you realize you’ve got to do it all over again. Nobody ever perfects craft. I learned that through this blog. But I also learned to read positively.

As a MFA student, I tore apart published books in order to see their faults and the seams where they didn’t quite hold together. This is natural. In workshop, you spend three hours explaining why the stories at hand don’t work; of course that mindset will bleed into your leisure reading. But the inability to enjoy new fiction is also a function of jealously. You want so badly to be recognized as a writer and so you get frustrated when people you view as your peers get tapped on the shoulder while you labor in obscurity. It makes you bitter. This, too, is natural. Some very successful, quite famous authors have made spectacularly poor shows of restraining their jealously. It makes for juicy Facebook news, but jealously also makes you a bad writer. If you can’t read your contemporaries and get excited, what sort of art will you create? Maybe you’re a seer, a remarkable genius who will invent a voice and form that revolutionizes literature. Or maybe you’ll just write the same half-baked stories over and over until you give up because journal editors and agents just don’t get it.

The thing I have learned through five years of creating exercises for this blog is to read with the expectation that the story, novel, essay, or memoir I’m about to begin will be amazing. That I will be reading in bed and shake my wife until she stops reading her own book so that I can tell her about the thing I just read. When you read positively, you don’t worry about poorly-crafted sentences or creaking plot mechanisms. Every story has its faults. Lord knows the Internet was designed for the sole purpose of explaining in great detail why the plot of The Last Jedi doesn’t hold together. (For the record, I felt like cheering when Luke brushed off his shoulders.) If you read exclusively for the faults, you only learn what not to do. You never answer the question that really matters: What should you do?

This isn’t to say that you should read without taste or aesthetic. As a former reader for two literary journals, I can tell you with 100% certainty that writing can be bad. Even published books can be bad. Generally speaking, though, you can assume that published books have achieved a basic mastery of craft, plus a little more. They’ve done something to make an agent and/or editor say, “Hey, I like this.” That isn’t easy. If you want to get jaded, sit in front of a slush pile.

The challenge as a writer is to keep jealousy and bitterness at bay. To read the way that K-12 children read, with a hunger and sense of awe. I vividly remember sitting in my parents’ brown, stained, worn living room chair, reading the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the Ring, my mom hollering that lunch was ready, my five siblings thundering into the kitchen, and me (a kid who once ate so much candy at a church Christmas party that I threw up on the way home) hollering back, “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Nobody but a writer gives a damn about craft. But only the craft of creating gripping characters, worlds, and stories can keep a hungry reader in the chair at meal time.

The best writing instruction, whether it’s in a MFA program or ad hoc, is focused on the strategies that  make readers put off eating and sleeping. If you read with that idea in mind, you don’t care about genre or style. You don’t only read the authors who speak to your own experience. You read anyone that you can learn from. The best thing about reading positively is the giddiness that you feel when you hit upon a sentence or scene you can imitate or steal.

Shameless plug: Pre-order the book by clicking here.

I was once at a reading by Junot Diaz, and someone asked how he felt about the proliferation of MFA programs, and he answered that everyone who wants to do it should write a book. Not all of those books will get published. So what? Publication and publicity are the least fun parts of creating a book. The most enjoyable part is writing. I hope that The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction will help you hone the skills that bring your enthusiasm for your own story to the page.

To that end, you’ll see some changes at this website. The front page has changed, giving information about the book. The blog is still there, under the blog tab. I’ll be giving some previews of the book over the next two months before its publication date: February 28. I’ll also be posting some new exercises by authors I love. If you love the blog, buy the book. (Shameless plug, I know). Tell your friends.

Thank you for reading these exercises for the past five years. Thank you for the kind notes you’ve sent, for the likes and retweets and shares. Good luck with your writing. I hope you all write books that will keep your readers turning the pages even as food sits on the table.

How to Figure Out Who Is Telling Your Story

14 Nov

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “revelatory” and “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

One of the most basic elements that writers must figure out is who should—or is—telling their story. This means point of view: first person, second person, third person, omniscient, and all the shades of each. The possibilities can be overwhelming, and if you start asking yourself, “Is this really the right POV for my novel/story/memoir/nonfiction,” you can drive yourself crazy and never write anything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask it, but sometimes the better approach is to forget the jargon and consider these simpler questions: Who is telling this story? What is the nature of that person? Why are they telling it?

A great example of a book whose answer to that question is tied inextricably to the way it is written is July Berwald’s captivating new book about jellyfish, Spineless. You can read the opening pages of the book here.

How the Book Works

The book is two things: a scientific report about jellyfish and argument about how they ought to be viewed by the public and studied by researchers and also Berwald’s personal story about the circumstances that led her to become interested in jellyfish. In terms of POV, the question becomes this: “What sort of person can tell both parts of that story?” It’s an aesthetic question but also a practical one. After all, readers could easily become confused if the scientific text they’re reading suddenly becomes a memoir.

As you might expect, Berwald sets out these different parts of her book right away. She begins with the personal: being in Hiroshima and seeing wild jellyfish. After a few pages and a space break, she breaks into the scientific: “The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa…” It’s a line that could fit into a textbook or article in Nature. But if the book were to simply move back and forth between science/personal, a lot of readers would begin to skim one in favor of the other. The book wouldn’t work. So, what Berwald must do is figure out how the person telling the story—her—would talk about jellyfish. In short, what is the POV for the scientific sections. What is the voice of the narrator?

Here is the rest of the passage that follows that initial scientific line. Watch how it answers the question:

The technical name for the stage of a jellyfish’s life when it swims freely in the seas is medusa, a moniker shared with the Ancient Greek mythological monster. Medusa is famous for her horrible face, which could turn a man to stone, and her wild locks of hissing snakes. It’s not hard to see the similarities. A swimming medusa could look like a floating head with a wayward mane of terrifying stinging tentacles.

But dig a little deeper into the story of Medusa, and what you find is not at all a monster, but a victim whose story has been misunderstood. Medusa was born to two ancient marine deities and, according to Ovid, was stunningly gorgeous. She served the goddess Athena in her temple. Others say Poseidon couldn’t control himself. As in too many cases like this, it depends who’s telling the story. Since I am: He raped her, right there in Athena’s temple.

The passage goes on to finish the story about Medusa and its connection to jellyfish. This is something that Berwald does throughout the book: convey factual information (in-depth, scientific, scholarly, contextual) in this engaging, personal voice. It makes the book a beautiful, captivating read even if you thought you didn’t care at all about jellyfish.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s figure out who is telling your story, using Spineless by Juli Berwald as a model:

  1.  Identify the parts of the story. I don’t mean the beginning, middle, end, setting, plot, etc. Instead, the parts of the story are the types of information that are conveyed. You see this a lot in novels that include characters with expertise in certain subjects, like Tom Clancy’s experts in warfare and weapons. In his novels, there is the story and also the vast amount of technical information that the characters know and talk about. Most fiction contains some version of this. Science fiction and fantasy has worldbuilding and lore that must be conveyed to the readers. So does historical fiction. In your book—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—what is the area of expertise for the characters. What are they obsessed with? If you’re writing nonfiction like Berwald and focusing on that expertise or obsession, what is the story around it (yours or other people’s)? Who are the individuals involved?
  2. Decide which part will be dominant (or which part will lead the way). In Spineless, Berwald leads with the personal. If I had to guess at a ratio, I’d guess that more than half of the book is actually scientific and factual, but she uses the personal to lead us into the science. In your story, think about both measures. What is the dominant information in your story? What does it focus on most of the time? And, what part of the story most often serves as the hook for the reader? What part leads the reader into a chapter or section?
  3. Weaves the parts together. Berwald starts with the personal and then pivots to the science. But when she does, it’s not a screeching change in direction. Instead, she uses the personal (which led us to the science) to comment upon the science and shape how we learn about it. She does this by overlapping types of information. So, in the passage above, she overlaps science with mythology, which provides an opportunity for explanation. In your story, you can do the same thing. Give your narrator (whoever and whatever POV it is) multiple kinds of information to talk about at once, which usually leads to explanation. She also personalizes the information, moving from a general perspective (“It’s not hard to see the similarities”) to a particular one (“it depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am:”). I don’t know if Berwald has taught university classes, but this technique is what often distinguishes the most popular professors in any field: their ability to convey factual information in an entertaining, engaging, and often personal way. It’s the difference between “Here is what is” and “Let me tell you what is.”
  4. Explore the nature of that speaker. In your story, who is the me that navigates between the different parts of the story? Try using Berwald’s sentence about Medusa as a literal model: “It depends on who’s telling the story. Since I am…” How would the of your story talk about the information in it. This works for third-person and omniscient POVs as well. They often have an attitude. Becoming more aware of it can help you fine tune your story’s voice to make it as engaging as possible.

The goal is to find the voice and perspective that allows you to weave together the different parts of your story as effectively as possible.

Good luck.

How to Use Mystifying Detail to Create Conflict

31 Oct
full_swiftbrutal

“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” by Megan McCarron was published at Tor.com and was nominated for a 2013 Nebula Award.

A few years ago, one of my college-composition students read the Christian inspirational novel, The Shack. In the book, a man receives a letter from God. I asked what seemed like a reasonable question: “Where was the letter from? What city was on the postmark?” The student just shook her head. For her, and for the book apparently, details like that were besides the point. But for a writer, details are exactly the point.

Meghan McCarron embraces this sort of mystifying detail in her story, “Swift, Brutal Retaliation.” You can read the Nebula Award-nominated novelette here at Tor.com.

How the Story Works

McCarron uses a classic ghost-story concept: Look into a mirror and see someone else’s face. It’s an easy way to move a ghost into a story. But once you have a ghost, what do you do with it? The answer depends on the sort of world the ghost has entered. In the novel The Shack, the world is one that God enters easily, where obvious questions such as   “Where did this letter come from?” are never asked. The world of that novel isn’t the world we live in. But what if it was? Part of the beauty of “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” is that it takes one of the oldest sci-fi/fantasy premises and adapts it to a contemporary world. As a result, the fantastical elements almost become realistic. Here are a few examples of the details that McCarron shows us:

  • “Sinead carried a thermometer and a compass, which the internet had told her were useful for detecting paranormal presences.”
  • “Sinead remembered reading somewhere, or maybe seeing in a movie, that you had to ask ghosts what they wanted.”
  • The ghost, when still alive, loved Facebook, and so his sister logged on and typed, “Ian, r u haunting the house?”

The world that McCarron creates—and that the ghost inhabits—becomes almost tangible. We, the readers, believe this place exists because we can see it in such sharp focus. As a result, when the ghost becomes angry, its fury and frustration are manifested in ways that now seem highly plausible—lasagna, hair-removal liquid. We’ve bought into the world, and now we’re scared when it becomes dangerous.

The Writing Exercise

In some ways, this story answers the age-old question, “What would you do if you saw a ghost?” The question has many possible answers, but the sisters’ responses are not limitless because they are shaped both by their personalities and by their world. So, for this exercise, let’s create a premise and a world.

  1. Choose an unusual premise. Ideally, you’ll pick something fun, something you’ve always wanted to write about: zombies, vampires, ghosts, magic, any one of a thousand sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/whatever premises. 
  2. Choose a specific place. It could be your living room. Or whatever is outside your window. Or it could be place in town that you know well. It could even be imagined.
  3. Fill the place with things: silverware, a piano, a fire hydrant, a church pew, a filing cabinet. Give yourself plenty of objects to use later.
  4. Put people in the place—main characters, anonymous faces, it doesn’t matter.
  5. Wind the premise like a toy and watch it run. Imagine a scene: If someone has otherworldly powers, how do those powers affect the things you’ve given yourself? If someone must react to a character with otherworldly powers, how are the things used as protection/weapons or for cover? Play around with the premise and things. In other words, do the ghosts use Facebook?

Happy Halloween!

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