Tag Archives: Diana Lopez

An Interview with the Editors of Huizache

19 Nov
Diana López

Diana López

Diana López is managing editor of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature and  the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.

 

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega is the assistant editor of Huizache. He has lived all over the Lone Star State but calls El Paso his home. His focus as a writer is short fiction, which is inspired by living in the Southwest and the complexities of border culture. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and book reviews. Some of his writing has appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Southwest American Literature, and various newspapers.

To read an exercise about portraying relationships with a single, specific detail based on Michele Serros’ essay “A Bedtime Story” that appeared in Huizache, click here.

In this interview, López and Ortega discuss the mechanics of putting together an issue of a literary journal, why “Honda CRX” is better than “sports car,” and what it means to be publishing Latino literature.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges of running a literary journal is identifying good submissions from okay ones. Obviously, Michele Serros was a known writer, and this essay may have been solicited. That said, it’s easy to read the opening passage that introduces the situation and see how this essay could have leaped out of a slush pile. How soon into reading this essay did you know, yep, this one’s going in the journal?

Diana López

The first issue of Huizache was entirely solicited. We were a new magazine, so it was important to establish our character. In a way, it served as a thematic and stylistic template for the issues to come. Michele’s piece is in our second issue, the first open to unsolicited submissions, and we received some good stories through the slush pile. Dagoberto Gilb, our Executive Director, reached out to Michele to solicit her work for two reasons. One, we were feeling a little panicked because we hadn’t received enough submissions from women, and two, we want our magazine to feature both new and established voices. Including Michele in our sophomore issue helped establish a sense of balance.

She sent Dagoberto two stories, and both were great fits for Huizache. We really deliberated about which to include, but ultimately “A Bedtime Story” felt like a stronger complement to the other works. This was an angry year for readers and writers of Chicano literature because of the Tucson ISD book ban. In many ways the second issue of Huizache is a reaction to that event. It opens with a defiant grito from Lorna Dee Cervantes in “A Chicano Poem,” and it also includes a narrative by El Librotraficante, Tony Diaz, about the caravan that toured the Southwest to establish underground libraries of the banned books. Immediately preceding Michele’s story is a poem about a minuteman tracking immigrants the way a hunter tracks prey.  So you have this dark poem followed by something funny. That’s why Michele’s story is centrally located in the magazine, to provide an emotional counterpoint. One of Michele’s greatest gifts is that she reminds us that we need to laugh, too.

Michael Noll

Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all the same and unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but I’ve read enough essays and stories about unhappy marriages to know that the same sort of trouble dooms a lot of relationships. As a result, my eyes tend to glaze at the average divorce/affair story. What about this essay made it stand out from the unhappy crowd?

A.J. Ortega

The second issues of Huizache included Serros' essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

The second issues of Huizache included Michele Serros’ essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

Most stories when looked at from a birds-eye view can’t be entirely new or unique in terms of the general premise. But when you zero in, it is the minutia, the little details, that separates it from the pack. While on the surface, Michele’s piece is a breakup/divorce story, it stands out because of Serros’ voice and the specificity in the concrete details. Details like the narrator listening to Howard Stern or the chocolate donuts and goat’s milk at the end make this something more than another breakup story.

My favorite details are in the opening. We are introduced to two older couples: Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years. They aren’t named. They aren’t described. They are purposely unspecific and vague. But, do you see what is described on that first page? The car. The focus on the car, the Honda CRX, is what makes this story charming, funny, real. The whole punchline is about having sex at the beginning of a relationship, in a car. Readers know the “sex in the car” bit. In fact, it’s overdone. But, in this story, Michele makes sure to specify that she is referring to the front seat of the car. I think you lose something in the story if you say “sports car” or “two-seater” instead of Honda CRX. On top of this, being precise about the make and model places this story in the early 90s. Then you get to the mention of Howard Stern, who has been around forever but was never as polarizing as he was in the early 90s. All of the details, what we get to zoom in on, are deliberate and calculated in this piece.

Michele’s charm as a writer is that she is quite funny. This particular story doesn’t attack the issue of the breakup of a relationship in a sad or overly sentimental way. Instead, the break up is enveloped in humor. Just like readers are familiar with the idea, the act, the ritual of having sex in a car, we also know the ritual of the break up. It’s awful, it hurts, it’s sad, your cry, they cry, you love them, you hate them, they hate you, and on and on and on, and then time passes and it becomes a story, a chapter of your own life.

What’s great in “A Bedtime Story” is that we don’t see the nastiness of the couple at their worst nor do we see their subsequent sadness. What for? Most of us have lived it. In this piece, we don’t see a big blow up of an argument or fight, complete with the crying and snot and dry heaving. Instead we get the mattress-rotating scene. Even if the scene plays out like a comedy routine, I bought it, and I know other readers did too. They aren’t fighting about the mattress. They are fighting about everything else in their relationship, whatever that may be. We never see that on the page, but, the way the story is crafted, it’s there. Sometimes the “real” story is revealed in the ellipses or line breaks.

Michael Noll

Huizache bills itself as “The Magazine of Latino Literature,” and so I’m curious how you view that word, Latino. I live in Austin, and so my sense of the word is Texas-centric, but, of course, if you go to New Mexico or Arizona or California, it’s not really referring to the same group of people, or not exactly, anyway. (As an example, I just heard a story on NPR about the need for translators of indigenous Mexican languages in California because so many of the farm workers don’t speak English or Spanish.) When you focus on Latino literature, what do you mean? Is it a focus on culture? Language? Geography? Some combination of all three?

A.J. Ortega

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Way to ask the tough questions, Michael. Our magazine focuses on Latinos, those of us from Latin America, or with ancestors from Latin America. I will say, though, that language doesn’t always have to do with identifying as Latino. There are Latinos in the U.S. that speak little or no Spanish. And, as you pointed out, some speak indigenous dialects. You know, I read one of those Pew Research Center things recently that made claim that more Latinos are proficient in English than before. Obviously! At this point, most of us are from here, American. Most of us speak English, and proficiently. This is why a magazine like Huizache has to exist. A lot of people, unfortunately, aren’t aware of these issues. I don’t know how many people are unaware, except that it’s a lot. Enough to warrant a magazine centered on giving Latinos a voice in the world of literature. Huizache aims to focus on Mexican American writing, mostly from the West and Southwest, as that subset makes up 60%-70% of the Latino population, but we are open to all Latinos, and everyone else.

As our country evolves, there are more and more Latinos all over the country. Our numbers are many but our voices, sadly, limited. Sometimes I think the obsession with labels used to describe different authors might be solely to figure out what shelf to put their books. But, it is all more complex than that. People need to understand that when navigating these labels, and how they apply to each individual, they will not be perfect at it. Even I’m confused. Labels are tough. Figuring out who you are is tough. That’s one thing a lot of Latinos have in common. Some of them grow out of one label and into another. Others are headstrong and stick to one. I, for example, don’t like the label Hispanic. The word refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries. However, the label was adopted by the U.S. government, specifically the Nixon administration, in order to count the Spanish-speaking population in the Census. And, as you and I both pointed out, some Hispanics don’t actually speak Spanish. Going further, some people feel that Hispanic also has echoes of the Spanish conquest and colonization in it, since that is how we got to speaking Spanish in the first place. (It also has the word “panic” in it, which is a little irrational but makes me feel weird anyway…especially when you hear it on the news.) I use Latino mostly, but when I can be more specific I prefer to do that. I say I’m Mexican American. The only way I can resolve my own identity, and subsequent identity issues, is by including the two things that have me confused in the first place – having cultural roots from Mexico, with Mexican family, parents, but being born in Houston, growing up in Texas and appreciating that I’m American. But, I’ve also known people who, for some reason, recoil at the uttering of “Mexican” like it is a bad word, and use Hispanic instead because it sounds softer.

I do like the word Latino because it seems to have been sprung from the community itself, rather than imposed by the government like I explained above. As a population of people who have different cultures, with different versions of Spanish, from different places, we at least share some struggles. One of these is the lack of exposure of our brilliant writers. Huizache aims to fill that gap.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the meaning of Latino especially in terms of Michele Serros. The words Chicana and Chica appear in three of her book titles, and she grew up in California. But she also married a well-known rock musician, and her work inspired both at least three mega-famous bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine). This latter part isn’t the standard Latino biography that we see on TV—and not just with ignorant statements by people like Donald Trump. Latinos don’t seem to appear in the news unless it’s a story about migration. All of this is to ask this: How important was Michele Serros, not just in carving out space for Latino writers but also in broadening a national sense for who Latinos are?

A.J. Ortega

Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song "Somos Más Americanos" for a MTV Unplugged special.

Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song “Somos Más Americanos” for a MTV Unplugged special. The New Yorker wrote a long feature about the norteño band here.

True that the latter part is not part of image of Latinos that we see on TV…but Latinos know otherwise, especially when it comes to the rockstar part. Mexicans and Mexican Americans love Rage Against the Machine. Zach de la Rocha, the lead singer, is a Chicano and the band was/is a huge success in Mexico. If you check out their Battle of Mexico City concert, you’ll see what I mean. Zach de la Rocha even joined the Los Tigres Del Norte, a norteño group, during their MTV Unplugged rendition of “Somos Mas Americanos,” a song that addresses the complexities of immigration and Mexican heritage. This is exactly the point of a lot of the conversation we’re having.

So, that’s a good segue into discussing how Michele Serros has been a tremendous influence on her own community of Latinos, women, writers, and even rock stars like Zach de la Rocha, Billy Corgan and Flea. I think what we can take away from the impression she had on people like these superstars is that she was able to transcend the label. I heard in an interview that she was once called a “Chicana falsa,” that is, she wasn’t the stereotypical Chicana according to her peers during her adolescence. She made it clear that the label isn’t her entire identity, but only part of it. Her upbringing in SoCal, with the beaches and malls, was part of her identity, thus the skateboarding and surfing. She was a lot of things, not just one. I think that’s a normal pressure that Latino writers have on their shoulders, wondering how you will be viewed, how you will be labeled, and how you will represent your community. Once your work is out there, it’s out there and people will think what they want. Michele, by putting certain words in her titles, took a certain amount of control over that, and that is something to admire. She had agency of her own identity as a Chicana, and even plays with it, challenges it, flips it on its head.

She reminds us that Latinos are a diverse group of people. The more people who realize this the better. Some Latinos are women and they call themselves Latinas. Some Latinas prefer to be called Chicanas. Some Chicanas are skaters. Some Latinos are brown. We also have white Latinos and black Latinos. A lot of Latinos speak English. Some, like me, speak Spanish but with an American accent. Others can’t speak a lick of Spanish. Some Latinos are teachers and some are rockstars. Some Latinos drink at bars, others are bartenders, and some even own the bar. And still, some are writers.

As long as we have authors like Michele Serros (que en paz descanse) to tell our complicated stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative, the people outside of the Latino community, and even those within it, will hopefully begin, or continue, to understand who Latinos really are and, in turn, their value to American literature and the country as a whole. Michele may be gone from this world, but her work and contribution to the literary arts keeps us moving forward.

Thanks for the questions, Michael. Wish you could have communicated with her directly. Your readers can get over to huizachemag.org and order Huizache, including issue two which includes Michele Serros’ work, for their collections. We have five issues now with a long list of award-winning authors, established and new, with attractive covers from Latino artists that’ll look great on their bookshelves. Read them, and enjoy them.

November 2015

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

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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

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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. 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

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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 Diana Lopez

6 Mar
Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella. She won the 2012 William Allen White Award.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella. She won the 2012 William Allen White Award.

Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.

In this interview, Lopez discusses the importance of strong imagery, how to find a contemporary teen voice, and when to explain cultural/regional details to a broader audience.

To read the opening chapters of Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and an exercise on creating conflict with subtext, click here. For those in Austin, Lopez will be reading at the Westbank Library on March 12.

Michael Noll

One of the more challenging technical aspects of fiction writing is getting characters onto the page for the first time. Your novel does this really effectively. The opening pages use a simple object (bikinis) to introduce four of the major characters (the narrator, her mother, her sister, and her little brother) and also the major conflict (the mother’s breast cancer). All of that happens in about three pages. How did you approach this introduction to character and story? Did the book always begin with the bikinis?

Diana Lopez

Yes. The original title of the novel was “9 Bikinis, 500 Names,” which are now the first and last chapters. I have no idea where the number nine came from, but I knew that I wanted to tackle breast cancer from a daughter’s perspective, a girl who is maturing and who has a lot questions about the body. I wanted her mother to be a strong character with a positive attitude, someone who was going to celebrate her days before the mastectomy by showing off. What better way than to wear bikini tops?

I can’t overstate the importance of strong imagery. The best way to make an okay story into a memorable one is specific imagery. My students often struggle with this. They miss so many opportunities. But consider all the power an image holds. First, it gives the reader a chance to experience via the senses—the bikini colors and patterns, the texture of the fabric, even the hot sun that we associate with them. Second, images hold connotative powers. I don’t have to say that Chia’s mom is fun loving, daring, and sexy. What kind of conclusion would the reader draw if the mother bought oversized T-shirts instead or if she threw away her bras the minute she came home from the doctor? In other words, a good image lets the readers co-create as they arrive at their own conclusions about the characters. Imagine all the assumptions we make about a forty year old woman driving a minivan versus a sixteen-year-old boy.

Michael Noll

There’s a really tender moment in the first chapter between the narrator’s dad and mom:

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.

When the narrator’s little brother demands juice, her dad gets it instead of her mom, which causes her mom to say, “Your father’s treating me like an invalid.” What I love about this moment is its complexity: the father is trying to be kind and considerate—and in most situations, his actions would be seen that way—but because of the situation, the mother interprets these actions as insulting and painful. As a result, the reader is shown something deep and powerful about the characters. Did you try to find scenes that would result in this kind of awkward collision of intention and effect? Or was a scene like this a happy accident? Did it just pop onto the page one day?

Diana Lopez

I am always looking for opportunities to heighten the conflict. It’s what drives a novel just as it drives a good conversation. Imagine how bored you are when your friend is relating the non-eventful details of her day, and then imagine how attentive you are when your friend is talking about someone in trouble. We love conflict.

I spent a lot of time figuring out my characters. I write a lot about each before I put them in scenes. What’s the mom like? Where does she come from and how does she spend her days? How about the dad? Where did they meet? Of course, this doesn’t make it into the final book but it definitely informs the scenes.

So to answer your question about that dinner, I imagined the family at the table and the parents having to deal with the mother’s breast cancer. It made sense for the father to be overprotective, and by then, we already know the mother has an independent streak. So the way she takes offense is natural and logical, given who she is. You could put two different people at the same table with the same looming news and get a completely different scene. In fact, that would be a good writing exercise, wouldn’t it?

Michael Noll

You don’t shy away from featuring technology in the novel. In the first chapter alone, the narrator texts her friend, searches through Google Images, and uses her iPod as a point of comparison for something as important as boys. Was it difficult to write about these things from an 8th grader’s perspective? I ask because my students at Texas State have a far different relationship to cell phones and technology than I do—and certainly different than I had at their age. These same students, however, tend to view their younger siblings as getting far more privileges than even they got. They sometimes sound like old geezers complaining about the kids these days. As a writer, how are you able to bridge the generational gap between you and your characters, especially with technology?

Diana Lopez

Good question and one that brings up a very important aspect of writing for young adults. You have to know your audience. I like writing contemporary books, so they have to take place in the here and now, not decades ago when I was a teen. This can be a challenge, but here’s where research comes in. The best way to bridge that generational gap is spend time with teens. Talk to them. Observe them. “Friend” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Soon you’ll start hearing that contemporary teen voice and you’ll get a good sense of how they relate to each other and to technology. I teach too, and I’m still writing on the board. Instead of copying the notes, half the class takes a pic with cell phones. Many public schools are doing away with books and distributing iPads to their students. I only know these things because I’m out there paying attention. A good tool for writers is observation and engagement with the people you hope will read your book.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the audience for this book. It’s about a Latino family living in San Antonio. They use corn tortillas for tacos—not flour—and take a trip to a cuarto de milagros. In other words, they have an intimate relationship with a particular culture and place. As a result, I was interested in this passage about migas:

Migas was our favorite Tex-Mex dish—a mix of corn tortillas, eggs, tomatoes, onions, and cheese. We loved the recipe. Thing was, migas were for breakfast, not dinner.

The description of migas is clearly meant for readers who do not have the same cultural knowledge as the narrator and her family. This seems to point to a tension that is inherent in a novel about characters who do not often appear in national fiction (though this is changing). How do you balance the need to clue in an audience not familiar with things like Tex-Mex food with the equal need for an honest depiction of a narrator who wouldn’t walk around explaining the basic elements of her life? How do you decide what to explain and what to leave to the reader to figure out?

Diana Lopez

Diana Lopez's middle grade novel Confetti Girl won the William Allen White Award and, according to ALA Booklist, "puts at its center a likable girl facing realistic problems on her own terms."

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Confetti Girl is featured the week at Latin@’s in Kid Lit.

Excellent question and one I have struggled with. I want my book to be accessible to many readers. That said, I don’t intentionally highlight these details. Seriously, they are part of my world so it doesn’t occur to me to give the recipe for things like migas or to explain the process of making cascarones like I do in Confetti Girl. This is where an editor who lives in New York comes in. We’ll get to this point in the revision process where she has highlighted places with unfamiliar images or words. I remember the first time this happened. I wrote a book set in Corpus and mentioned T-heads, never realizing how unique that term was. The editor had no idea what I was talking about, so I added an appositive phrase for clarification. Ultimately, that’s what I have to determine. Are there enough context clues or should I be little more explicit? The last thing I want is a reader to stop because she’s confused. In that sense, I am very grateful to have an editor who is not from my world and can point out these places—then lets me decide whether or not I should add that recipe or definition.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Conflict with Subtext

4 Mar
Diana Lopez's YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel has been called an “honest, sometimes uncomfortable, but always hopeful look at how cancer affects family.”

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. You can read the opening chapters at Hachette’s website. (Look for the maroon tab that says “OpenBook-READ AN EXCERPT.”)

How the Story Works

When setting up scenes, we often choose the most obvious paths toward conflict. One character is upset about something and says so. Another character doesn’t like what’s said and so reacts. Thus, conflict. While this method can work, it also limits the characters to thinking about and acting on whatever is happening directly in front of their faces. In other words, there’s no subtext.

In a conflict that arises out of subtext, the characters are thinking about something that is not happening in front of their faces, and the conflict arises because those thoughts begin to manifest themselves through the character’s actions. As a result, a character’s internal conflict becomes external.

Here’s the scene from Lopez’s novel that illustrates this idea perfectly. The subtext isn’t stated in the scene, but it’s clearly present:

As soon as she saw the table, Mom said, “What’s this?”

“I made dinner,” Dad announced.

“But I could have made dinner,” Mom said. “I was planning to. I always make it, don’t I?”

“Just wanted you to have a day off,” Dad said, all cheery.

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.

After some typical dinner-with-kids chaos, this happens:

“So let the rest of us help,” Dad said. “There’s no need for you to do everything.”

“And there’s no need for me to do nothing at all.”

I felt totally confused. Dad was acting super nice, but Mom was acting mad. “What’s going on?” I had to ask.

It’s at this point that the subtext is revealed: the mom has breast cancer. With that knowledge, you can go back through the scene and see how the dad’s and mom’s actions all stem from this subtext. What makes the scene work is that not everyone is acting on the subtext in the same way: The dad has approached the cancer diagnosis differently than the mom, and the kids don’t yet know what’s going on. As a result, the scene involves three different characters (mom, dad, kids) reacting to subtext (conflict that is happening off page) in three different ways.

What’s interesting is that all of the characters have good intentions. No one is the bad guy or antagonist in the scene. Keep this in mind. A good subtext can pit good people against one another simply because they have different, incompatible reactions to the subtext.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene whose conflict stems from subtext, using the scene from Diana Lopez’s novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel as a model:

  1. Choose a subtext. Or, decide what the character(s) are thinking about while they’re doing other things. What often works best is a subtext that is shared by more than one character. So, you could consider news or revelations about health, career, relationships, school, or finances. These are big areas, the sort of things that stories are “about.”
  2. Choose characters. Who are they, and what is their relationship to one another? Remember, you’ll be putting these people together in a scene, so you need a reason for them to be together.
  3. Give each character a different approach to the subtext. How does each character feel about the subtext? In Lopez’s example, cancer makes the mom determined to enjoy life and the dad determined to care for the mom, and the kids don’t know about it yet. In your writing, each character should have his/her own personal reaction to the news/revelation and also a need to act on that reaction. In life, some good advice is to never act rashly or in haste—to let news sink in before acting. But in fiction, this is bad advice. People and characters alike have a gut reaction upon learning news, but with people, this reaction is sometimes tempered with time. In fiction, time should actually heighten the reaction. In other words, by the time your characters find themselves in scene with one another, they should be so disturbed or bothered by the subtext that they’re chomping at the bit to act. It might also be helpful to have at least one character who doesn’t know the subtext.
  4. Put the characters into a room together. Lopez uses the occasion of a meal. Many stories use wedding, funerals, and graduations. Jane Smiley, in her brilliant novel A Thousand Acres, has her characters play Monopoly. The point is to put the characters into a confined space that they cannot leave: a car, around a table, a space station (Gravity).
  5. Make one of the characters act first. Lopez has the dad act on his reaction to the subtext first (making dinner, pulling out the chair), and the sequence of events dominoes from those initial acts. The act should stand out in some way. The easiest way is for the character to act out of character, and, often, this kind of act will cause the character to be embarrassed or behave awkwardly. Remember, the character is doing something out of the ordinary, and so he/she likely won’t be very good at it. The small failures in the act can provide openings for other characters to react.
  6. Keep the subtext just beneath the surface. Don’t let it be stated outright. As Lopez makes clear in the first chapter of the novel, once the subtext is revealed, the scene ends. So, the longer you can keep it under the surface, the longer you can keep the scene going.

Good luck!

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