Tag Archives: Daniel Jose Older

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.

 

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An Interview with Daniel José Older

31 Mar
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper. His essay, "Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing," addresses the institutional bias present in the publishing industry.

Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper. His essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing,” addresses the institutional bias of the publishing industry.

Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper, which was nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature. His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna, and the Locus and World Fantasy-nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications.

To read an exercise about becoming a better reader, click here.

In this interview, Older discusses the self-fulfilling prophecy of marketing, why categories in publishing matter, and what meaningful change in terms of diversity would look like.

Michael Noll

You write, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color.” You add that this is marketing code for “you people don’t read” and an assumption that “white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.”

This seems like the central crux of what you’re writing about: the belief that white people will only read about characters who are like them–or seem like them. And if they do read books about non-white characters, it’s often out of weird impulses of guilt and the need to be vindicated. For example, it seems not surprising that, at least here in Texas, To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading and, say, Invisible Man isn’t. How much of this—at least, thinking about the difference between books and music albums—is due to the age of the consumer? Would it make a difference if “adult” books were marketed to teens?

Daniel José Older

I’m honestly not sure. I’ll say this: Marketing is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are certain assumptions in play until something comes along that ruptures them. And this applies to all genres. People tend to walk the line. That’s why courage comes into play, the courage to try new things. It’s wide-ranging, and industry-wide issue, not just editors and marketing people.

White writers have been writing to white audiences for decades but it was called being universal, which is a code word for white. Readers of color read white writers—even when they’re writing for write audiences—but the opposite isn’t always true. The industry isn’t representative of its readership. White writers can write for white audiences, and, at the same time, they can write to the industry.

Michael Noll

In the essay, you tell a story about attending a conference where an agent was asked about the industry’s diversity problem, and the agent said this: “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected.” You write, “This is the language of privilege: it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway.”

What I find really interesting is what you write a bit later: “We’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other.” I immediately thought of Kiese Laymon, a writer who, as much as anyone I can think of, has said that he’s writing for black audiences and entering a discussion with black writers.

You write about what white people need to do in order to dismantle white supremacy, but is this the opposing response? How do you think about your own readership?

Daniel José Older

I’ve talked to entirely white audiences and audiences that were entirely people of color. The reaction in both has been positive, but it’s different, too. There are different laugh lines. I tell this story: I read once to an all-white audience, and they were into it. Mesmerized is the word. But they didn’t laugh once. It was a horror story, and when I’d written it on a bus in Brooklyn, I’d been cackling. When I read the same story to people of color, they were on the floor. Both audiences were into it. At one point, I was going to stop reading, and it was at a moment of tension, a cliffhanger, and the white audience said, “Don’t stop.” There’s a difference in how different audiences respond.

White people are hungry to talk about race. They don’t necessarily have the language to do it. But when I speak on race, the reception is warm and curious, even if they don’t have the language.

Michael Noll

Daniel José Older's urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues has been called "Noir for the Now."

Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues has been called “Noir for the Now.”

You write, “Many of our gifts and challenges won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”

I thought of this in connection with your urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues. It’s certainly working within the genre of ghost and paranormal thrillers. But there were moments when the fact that it was written by a writer who wasn’t white—and that it was about characters who weren’t white—was very clear. And those moments were great, at least to my mind, because they elevated the book above other similar books. Other books have cool monsters and cool worlds of the dead, but they don’t always comment on society. Did you set out to write a book about, as you say, “Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation”? Or is this simply an essential part of your work?

Daniel José Older

It feels natural to do it. It’s also what I know to be true. Write what’s true and then try to say something. Ultimately, it’s about asking books to multitask. You’ve got this entire book, and you can do a lot of things in it. When a book demands a lot from you, it asks you to step up to its level.

Michael Noll

Do you think the industry shares your enthusiasm for books that multitask? You sometimes hear about books that operate within multiple genres or are doing multiple things and that agents, editors, and booksellers don’t know how to categorize the book.

Daniel José Older

We have a flawed category system. I write urban fantasy, which is a weird term. Urban is code for characters who are black or brown. Then you throw in fantasy, which is almost entirely white. There are very few fantasy writers of color.

Edward W. Said's book Culture and Imperialism demonstrates that Western imperialism's most effective tools for dominating other cultures have been literary in nature as much as political and economic.

Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism demonstrates that Western imperialism’s most effective tools for dominating other cultures have been literary as much as political and economic.

But there’s probably no way not to have a flawed system. Categories are inherently messy. I’m reading Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, and he traces the need to categorize back to the nation-state—the idea of borders. And now, of course, we’re talking about walls. With nationalism, we’re talking about how we value life. In a micro way, this is the case in literature: which books are sci-fi, which are high literature even though they have robots in them. All of these are questions about power.

The categories matter. Slavery was invented by white people, but it’s become “black history.” We need to be clear who was doing the enslaving or it gets erased. It’s talked about as a black people problem and is written about in passive voice, without identifying who was doing the enslaving. In the same way, sexual assault is talked about as a woman’s problem. You won’t find it in the men’s section.

Michael Noll

You write, “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?” That work, you add, “means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.”

It’s been two years since you published this essay. Have any answers occurred to you? Have you seen this in action?

Daniel José Older

We need to go from a flash-in-the-pan to a sustained movement. The question is how to make even more sustained, not just a buzz word but an actual revolutionary change, not just a new face on the same old shit. A good example of this, in a positive way, is We Need Diverse Books.

All-American Boys tells the story of an act of police violence from the view of the victim and the police officer.

The novel All-American Boys tells the story of an act of police violence from the view of the victim and the police officer.

Because of how publishing works, how long it takes for books to come out, any changes won’t be apparent for a couple of years. One example is All-American Boys, which is about police brutality. That book was rushed—and rushed in a good way. There was a sense that it needed to get out there.

But we need to be on guard against white fatigue, the sense of, well, we’ve had enough diversity. If we’re not careful and precise in these changes, we’ll get something that isn’t good. Diversity doesn’t just mean diverse characters. It means diverse writers as well. If it just amounts to stories about characters of color being told by white authors, that’s not victory. That’s not the point of this movement. There’s a long history of co-option, and it’s especially dangerous. There are quotas in effect—literally. Publishers will say, we already have a black book. But it’s a book by a white person. A black writer is trying to get a book published and can’t because a white person already took that spot.

Michael Noll

So, does that mean creating new imprints and houses? Or changing the existing ones?

Daniel José Older

There’s a new Muslim imprint at Simon & Schuster that looks really interesting, but it can’t be the only answer. There’s no white imprint. It’s mainstream publishing, and that’s what we need to transform.

March 2016

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

How to Become a Better Reader

29 Mar
Daniel José Older wrote about the need to transform publishing his essay, "Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing."

A new anthology of essays on publishing contains Daniel José Older’s excellent essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.”

A few weeks ago, in a university creative writing class that I teach, I was leading a discussion about a student’s story and someone asked, “Wait, is the narrator a man or a woman?” I realized that I wasn’t sure. I had assumed it was a man, but several students pointed out lines that clearly indicated it was a woman. So I began scanning the text, looking for words or phrases that might have pointed me in the wrong direction. There weren’t any. The language and details were clear. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the narrator slept with girls. Several students correctly pointed out that assuming that this character was a man was an example of heteronormative thinking. (If you’re not familiar with that term, as my spell checking software clearly isn’t, it’s the idea that heterosexuality is the baseline and everything else is different and unusual.) I felt pretty dumb. I had misread the story because of my own inherent bias.

This was a humbling experience and a reminder that I must continually monitor my perceptions. Just because I want to believe that I’m unbiased doesn’t mean that I actually am. And my biases almost certainly aren’t confined to gender.

Daniel José Older addresses such biases directly in his excellent essay “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” It was first published at BuzzFeed and included in the timely and necessary anthology from Milkweed Press, Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century.

Why We Need to Become Better Readers

Like most educated people, I like to think that I’m thoughtful and open-minded. As a reader, writer, and teacher, I’ve tried to educate myself about race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. And so my wrong assumption about the workshop story bothered me a lot. I came up with excuses for my mistake, like the fact that the student had turned in the story at the last minute—as a result, I’d read it much more quickly than I normally would. If I’d had more time, I would have caught and corrected my own bias.

But this is life, especially in publishing: from top to bottom, there isn’t enough time. Journal editors are flooded with manuscripts, as are agents and book editors and marketers and booksellers. We believe that our decisions are made based on aesthetics and craft, but, in my case, I’m still a straight white guy from rural Kansas. It’s not at all surprising that I make assumptions that are more grounded in bias than reality—and, for that (for leading a class discussion without understanding that the discussion was slanted based on my own biases), I owe my class an apology. I need to do better, and I’m not alone.

Most people in the publishing industry are, like me, white, and, like me, most probably carry with them unacknowledged bias.

Results from a study on diversity within the publishing industry, by

Results from a study on diversity within the publishing industry by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

Recent research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reveals just how white the industry is: nearly 80%. Whitest of all are book reviewers at nearly 90%. The decisions that these white industry professionals make about books inevitably reflect unacknowledged bias. This is precisely what Older talks about in “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing.

Older tells a story about how “a few years ago, someone in the publishing industry crossed out a line I wrote in a novel.” In the scene, “a Latina character feeling uncomfortable in a shnitzy part of Brooklyn because all the other women of color had little white babies and all the white people were looking at her sideways. The note beside the crossout said: ‘Doesn’t happen in this day and age.’”

Older explains that his personal outrage isn’t the point. Instead, he writes, “I want to take a moment to recognize a more unspoken consequence of having a mostly white industry dictate mostly white standards to a mostly white author-base: the stories that won’t get told.”

Some agents and editors get it. But some don’t. Older describes a panel where agents were asked “what they could do to help shift the troubling lack of diversity.” One agent said, “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected,” meaning writers of color. Another, when asked why “less than 1% of her submissions were from people of color,” said, “This seems like a question for an author to answer.”

Older succinctly puts the problem this way: “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: ‘How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?’”

It’s a terrific question, with a couple of surprisingly simple answers. First, the industry needs more diversity: in publishing houses, in agencies, in book reviewers and book buyers and marketers. Second, industry professionals (book editors, agents, journal editors, reviewers, and reading series coordinators) must go out and find diverse writers. This is something I’ve tried to do at Read to Write Stories. Early on, I realized that, when I was coming up with writers I wanted to feature, they were mostly white and mostly men. This was partly due to my own bias and partly due to the industry that I relied upon for book suggestions. I was almost certainly excited about authors that I’d been told to get excited about. I needed to be proactive—to search journals for writers and to return to journals, like Boston Review and Guernica, that seemed to be publishing more writers of color.

Does this search take work? Sure. But it’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. (I say work, but, in truth, it’s a community effort. I’ve discovered many, many terrific authors just by paying attention to what books Roxane Gay and Nina Swamidoss McConigley are talking about on social media). I’ve read authors that I may have otherwise missed—Kiese Laymon, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Michelle Serros, Bae Suah, and Daniel José Older to name just a few—but who I now find myself returning to again and again because of what they have to say and because of their astonishing craft.

As writing teachers and members of writing groups and workshops, we must read more diverse stories. It makes us better readers for our peers in workshop, better members of the literary community, and better writers because we are engaging with terrific work that will inspire and challenge us. Challenge is perhaps the key word. Because I love Kiese Laymon’s work, I teach it often, and the response is often mixed. Some people find the language difficult—or the structure or the plot. Certainly, everyone has different tastes, but it’s also the case that there are many “difficult” writers who have been canonized, not just deceased ones like Faulkner but also living, breathing, award-winning writers like Jennifer Egan, whose great, structurally-challenging novel A Visit from the Goon Squad was deservedly praised. And, of course, not all writers of color are writing “difficult” fiction. Some, like Daniel José Older, are smart, writing terrifically entertaining genre works. His novel Half-Resurrection Blues is a paranormal detective story and has one of the best monsters I’ve read in a long time.

So, start reading. Will it inoculate you from criticism, remove all biases, and make you always correct about matters of diversity? No. I can attest to this personally. But it’s a place to begin.

An Exercise in Better Reading 

Let’s expand our reading, using Daniel José Older’s essay “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” as a primer:

  1. Find a book written by a person of color, a woman, a disabled person, or someone identifies as LGBTQ. There are many included here at Read to Write Stories. You can also look here: We Need Diverse Books, Lambda Literary, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Asian American Writers Workshop, The Mixed Experience, Huizache, and Authors of Color. If you’re a teacher or student, consider checking out VONA Voices. If you’re at AWP this week, here’s a panel that speaks to these concerns: Reimagining Literary Spaces.
  2. Read the entire book. Don’t give up, even if the book seems difficult or dull. Personal aesthetics are malleable. Our sense of what is good changes based on what we’ve read. We are, in effect, continually holding whatever we’re reading against the models in our head. So, in order to hone your aesthetic, you must add more models.
  3. Find another book by another writer who isn’t a straight, able-bodied, white man and read it. Don’t stop with just one book. Don’t make an author speak for his or her race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality. Don’t let one writer’s style become The Style for Everyone Who Looks Like Him or Her. Most of us are guilty of this. Whatever book has grabbed the nation’s attention overshadows many other excellent books. Give yourself the opportunity to find them.
  4. Recommend the books to others. Unless a book is getting the gold-standard marketing push from its publisher, its success will depend upon word of mouth. So, tell people about the book. Give it to people to read. Share reviews of the book on Facebook and Twitter. Review the book on Amazon. (Even if you don’t like Amazon’s business model, the presence or lack of reviews on its site affects a book’s sales in all venues.) Books only get read if people know about them, so spread the word.

The goal is to discover the many wonderful books that are being written today. By reading books we might otherwise not find, we become better readers for ourselves and for our fellow writers.

An Interview with Daniel José Older

19 Dec
Daniel

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories that Publisher’s Weekly called a “delicate mix of horror and humor” that secures Older “a place among the rising stars of the genre.”

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories. He’s also a composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast. His soul band Ghost Star regularly performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history around the city. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, and The Innsmouth Free Press and The Subversion Anthology, among others. He’s been a featured reader in Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and at The New York Review Of Science Fiction.

In this interview, Older discusses ghosts and stories and why we love to combine the two.

(To read Older’s story “Victory Music” and an exercise on introducing genre elements into literary fiction, click here.)

Michael Noll

This is a ghost story, and it begins appropriately, with the narrator telling a dead person that “you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.” But I was still surprised when the ghost actually arrived, not only because it’s not the ghost we expect but because I’d gotten so engaged in the scene with the narrator’s parents that I’d forgotten that there was supposed to be a ghost at all. I was reminded of Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” To explain how suspense is created, he uses the scene from Hamlet when Hamlet is waiting for his father’s ghost but then gets distracted by this uncle’s drunken entourage. Hamlet, and the audience, get so wrapped up in his uncle that we forget all about the ghost and so are surprised when it arrives. I wonder if you had this basic idea in mind when you wrote the story: promise something and then delay its arrival.

Daniel José Older

Great question. I’ve always been fascinated by the letters we write and never send, or write in our heads but never put on paper. I think this is one way we interact with the dead without meaning to or realizing it sometimes, that internal dialogue. The idea of the things we never had a change to say to someone is so heartbreaking and so real. So on the process tip, that was my starting point. In this case, I wasn’t thinking of Krys as a foreshadow so much as an emotional center that Wes anchors to for support even after Krys is dead. Memories are powerful, more powerful than ghosts maybe, and the subtext to this story, in my head, is that Krys—who does show up as a ghost in my book Salsa Nocturna—is never actually present in this story; Wes uses the memory of Krys to access a sense of their own power and sense of self.

Michael Noll

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Your first book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories. On one hand, when I read the description of the book, I thought, “Oh, that’d be fun to focus every story on ghosts.” But then I realized that you’d have to make each ghost and the approach to each ghost different. To that end, the ghost in this story isn’t really a ghost. He’s someone who can vanish at will–but, he still seems like a ghost. So, to some extent, it seems like you’re expanding the definition of ghost and ghost story. Is that simply out of necessity–there are only so many ghosts?

Daniel José Older

Ha! I really hadn’t thought of it that way. Once the underworld, or parallel world really, of ghosts became clear in my mind, the stories all came very smoothly. In some sense there’s truth in what you say though, as artists we always need to be pushing at the borders of our genre and comfort zones, and with “Victory Music” I was interested in how we are haunted sometimes more by the living than the dead. It’s a concept I’ve played with before, though never quite in these terms, and as I said, the healing power of memory plays a major role here. Niles just showed up in my imagination as is—he was born from the necessity of having an eerie, emotionally resonant conflict for Wes. And the act of disappearing is so rich, so layered when complicated by power and privilege…it’s a natural fit for the story.

Michael Noll

In this interview at the New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, "The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare."

In this interview at The New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.”

The writer Victor LaValle said in a New York Times interview, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.” The ghost in your story seems to fit this description. The narrator is concerned with identity–her Sikh-ness, her gender–and then, appropriately enough, here comes a guy who can empty out his identity until he literally vanishes. Do you think about the meaning of your ghosts, the particular anxieties that are manifested in them?

Daniel José Older

Surely—the ghost is a crossroads. Past and present, life and death, healing and destruction all have the potential of meeting in the figure of the ghost. When we spend so much time focusing on the simple concept of ghost as evil spirit, it’s just a profound missed opportunity. Writing Salsa Nocturna really taught me that ghost stories are really about life, not death.

Michael Noll

I know a horror writer, Scott Johnson, who, in his free time, investigates ghosts and has encountered them many, many times. Those encounters have ranged from terrifying to quirky to sweet. I love hearing his stories—and other true ghost stories. Though I’m not sure I “believe” them in the factual sense, I find them utterly compelling. So, while I’m curious whether you believe in ghosts, I’m more interested in your take on ghost stories: Why do we tell them so often? What is the appeal of ghost stories?

Daniel José Older

How we view ghosts is about our connection to our own histories. Do we have something lurking back there, waiting to pounce? Do we lament an idealized day gone by? Have we found balance or are we still at war with our past? On a national sense, there’s so much undealt with baggage in the founding and maintaining of this frail, corrupt democracy and we’ve never really confronted what that means. So the idea of a shadow from history materializing in our modern world and causing havoc resonates, on a level that touches on both anxiety and empowerment.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Introduce Genre Elements into a Literary Story

17 Dec
Daniel José Older's story, "Victory Music" was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction's RePrint series.

Daniel José Older’s story, “Victory Music” was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction‘s RePrint series.

How do you introduce genre elements into a literary story without also feeling beholden to the genre’s usual structure? For instance, not every story with ghosts is a ghost story. Anyone reading the first lines of a ghost story has certain expectations for what will happen. But if that same person begins a story about a young woman who tells her parents that she’s no longer a girl, the expectations are different. It’s the old genre vs literary divide.

One way to handle this balancing act can be found in Daniel José Older’s story “Victory Music.” It was originally published in PANK 8.06, and was selected as a RePrint by Necessary Fiction Writer-in-Residence Ashley Ford. You can read it now at Necessary Fiction.

How the Story Works

Any story that wants to use genre elements but not genre structure must toe a fine line. If it drops the genre element (in this case, a ghost) into the story out of nowhere, the reader is likely to be confused or thrown for too much of a loop. But if the story introduces the genre element too firmly, the reader is going to expect a genre structure. The trick, then, is to hint at the genre element without settling too firmly into the structure. Let’s look at how Daniel José Older does this in “Victory Music.”

He hints at the genre element (the ghost) by letting the narrator address a dead person named Krys. The opening section ends this way:

I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.

Notice how the statement is vague enough to be read several ways, only one of which requires a ghost. But even that lack of specificity might be too much—which is why the story begins with a paragraph that has nothing to do with ghosts:

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

The first section ends with a hint of a ghost but a lot of non-ghost potential conflict. The next section can go two ways: It can develop the “saved my life…after you died” idea or one of the non-ghost ideas from the first paragraph. Older chooses the latter, reintroducing the narrator’s parents:

[M]y dad sent the twins to bed with a growl and then said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a girl?”

Imagine how different the story would be if it began the first section with something ghostly. In order to continue to increase the suspense further, the story would have no choice but to further develop the ghost—and as the possibilities for development narrowed, that is when the story would likely adopt the usual structure of a genre ghost story.

Instead, because the story introduces the conflict around the narrator’s gender identity, the story is given a new conflict to develop—and, in this story, that conflict climaxes with the appearance of a ghost. To some extent, the difference between a story with ghosts and a ghost story is when the ghost appears. The earlier it appears, the more likely it becomes that the story adopts a genre structure. (I’ll admit that there are exceptions to this rule, as shown by this story about a monster.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a genre element into our stories, experimenting with placement, using “Victory Music” as a model:

  1. Choose the genre element. Pick your favorite genre story and borrow something from it: ghosts, zombies, vampires, monsters, detectives, cowboys, aliens, giant squid, playboy millionaires, heiresses with squandered fortunes, wizards, middle-aged women looking for sex in a city, 20-something actors with entourages of hometown friends.
  2. Hint at the genre element. Write a sentence or two that suggests to the reader which genre element is coming. Don’t be too specific (“There were werewolves somewhere in this city.”) Instead, try to hint at the element in a way that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Remember Older’s line from “Victory Music”: “I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.”
  3. Lead up to your hint with something unrelated to the element. Keep in mind the writer Ron Carlson’s advice that every story contains two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Create a character or world that exists independently of the genre element that you’re introducing. Give that character or world the seeds of a conflict(s) that have nothing to do with the genre element.
  4. Figure out the relationship between conflict and genre element. Your story is necessarily going to move between two elements: the character’s original conflict and the genre element. To make this move, it’s helpful to know where each is located. Do they exist in the same space? In Older’s story, the ghosts are in one place and the conflict with the father is in another place.
  5. Develop one of those conflicts. Keep in mind where you’re going. If the genre elements waits elsewhere, the conflict should develop so that the character is required to leave one place and go to another.
  6. Introduce the genre element. Remember that most transitions are not clean breaks. Make the character preoccupied with the conflict he/she just left. That way, when the genre element appears, it will come as a surprise to both the reader and the character.

Good luck!

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