Tag Archives: experimental fiction

How to Stretch Present Action

12 Jul
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

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 novel’s first paragraph, 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. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

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).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

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How to Stretch Present Action

16 Dec
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

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 novel’s first paragraph, 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. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

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).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

An Interview with Erin Pringle-Toungate

3 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle’s first collection The Floating Order was called “poetic, lush, gripping” and “rather disturbing.” She recently finished her new collection, How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Tuongate’s first collection of stories, The Floating Order,  has been called “dense, experimental, thick with dread and the dead.” The stories are full of inventive language and powerfully weird images.  They’re also gripping reads, similar to the work of cross-genre horror writers like Brian Evenson and John Burnside.

Pringle-Toungate currently lives and teaches in Washington, where she was awarded an Artist Trust fellowship. One of her stories was a finalist in the Kore Press Short Fiction Chapbook Award (2012). Her work has been twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected as a Best American Notable Non-Required Reading, and shortlisted for the Charles Pick Fellowship. She recently completed her second story collection, How the Sun Burns.

In this interview, Pringle-Toungate discusses the challenge of moving through time in fiction, the structural requirements of writing in present tense, and the difference between the sentences “A man walks into a bar” and “A man walks into Hooters.”

(To read Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” and an exercise based on the story’s movement between the main character’s past and present, click here.)

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” switches between the past and present, a structure that can pose difficult questions: How often do you switch? How long do you stay in one time period? Your answer is to switch as often as every sentence. The result is that you sort of avoid those questions about block structure. Because past and present are so closely intertwined you can decide to stick with one thread for as long or briefly as you want. Did you experiment with different ways of mixing past and present, or did you know how you’d handle it even in early drafts?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

It took me about two years to get to this draft of the story. I wrote multiple versions, and many of those were attempts to deal with time and to avoid the problems caused by a previous version, such as staying in the past for so long that the present conflict seemed to lack energy, or staying so long in the present that the past began to belong to one character instead of all of them. The midwife’s age changed several times before I realized she needed to be expert now—the younger she was, the more the delivery became about sex and all sorts of junk that got in the way of the story I wanted to tell. Maybe as soon as a character has a history that is important to the present, time becomes an issue to be dealt with.

Michael Noll

I’ve read quite a few stories lately that explain the entire premise in the first paragraph(s) and then explore the consequences of the premise. But “The Midwife” withholds a basic piece of information about the premise until the end. It makes for an effective story–I wanted to know the secret. I wonder if you always structure stories this way (it’s not unlike the structure of a detective novel, except we’re the detectives). How do you know what to withhold and what to disclose?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

My stories are typically structured like this, or something like this—in which a key bit of information that is guiding the story is withheld. For example, in “The Only Child,” the main character is with her imaginary friend in a morgue, but I let these two facts remain unstated and what drive the suspense aspect of the story. This sort of structure is mainly due to my tendency to write in present tense. Because of that, it would seem contrived to begin with a recounting of a story that hasn’t occurred yet—and suspense can’t work quite in the same way. So, withholding is how I attempt to create suspense.

What I withhold is based on what is most obvious and familiar to the character because what is most obvious and familiar to the character is what he or she wouldn’t think to say to anyone. In “The Floating Order,” a woman has drowned her children, but she uses the terminology of floating her children and thinks she has saved them so that’s the language she uses, so it takes a while for readers to realize what she has done. This gives me time to make them learn about her. I think to make readers allow themselves to think about difficult issues, the writer has to figure out how to strip those issues of any familiarity so that they can be thought about. In my story “How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble,” a girl is struggling to understand why anyone could let her sister disappear and die, but never does she say that or talk about it—until the end, when she’s begging a carnival worker to pretend to have seen the sister disappear. In “The Midwife,” she knows where she is going, so I let her walk—just like you know why you’re going to the grocery so you don’t bother to tell anyone why. But if someone saw you walking down the street at night, they may think they you’re going to do something else entirely. Whatever is most on the character’s mind, I delay revealing. It may help that I’m not sure what leads to the man’s death myself—it’s not only the woman, it’s not only the illness, it’s not only the whole decaying town, it’s not only. . . and so this also helps me, as there’s never any one thing in any story that has caused, or led from, any one event.

Michael Noll

“The Midwife” is quite long, about 8500 words. You’ve also written some stories (like this one) that fit within a paragraph. This ability, to write both long and short stories, is unusual. Many writers have a particular length that they’re comfortable with. What’s your mindset when you first begin a story? Have you written it already in your head? Or is there some process of discovery that happens on the page that tells you how long the story will be?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

The stories in The Floating Order are short mainly because I was teaching myself how to write. I was teaching myself how to use language—what its limits were, what its possibilities were, besides that the perspectives and ideas allowed a shorter form where the language had to work much harder than it has to work in long form. So the stories were somewhat like unbuilding houses in order to build the smallest, habitable house possible in order to understand what a house didn’t need in order to stand—and to understand whether or not a house had to stand in order to work.

All the stories in my next collection, How the Sun Burns, are longer stories. My characters are older and so the causes of their behaviors, or the background of their lives, or their thoughts, are more complicated. I think children’s lives are equally complicated, but typically most adults wouldn’t agree with me, so my characters are somewhat older (at least in this story) so as to avoid issues of verisimilitude. And I have to explain the complications so as to avoid readers assuming they know why the characters do what they do. The recent cultural tradition of leaving comments on newspaper articles has terrified me about what readers can think, and so the stories are longer in some ways probably so as to avoid myself imagining the comments readers might leave. I hope that tradition ends soon.

Michael Noll

Erin Pringle-Toungate's debut collection The Floating Order has been called.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s debut collection The Floating Order tells stories that resemble the nightmares of children.

The Short Review called your first collection, The Floating Order, “a contemporary Brothers Grimm for adults.” Like fairy tales, many of your stories are set in a kind of everyworld. This seems true of the “The Midwife” even though it mentions strip malls, the 1980s, and a “heavy-hipped Midwestern woman in beige pants and a striped pastel shirt.” Maybe it’s because it’s about a barber performing deliveries, an activity that seems from another time. I’m curious how you think about place in your writing. Are you, in fact, writing fairy tales?

Erin Pringle-Toungate

I’ve found that if you don’t use names and don’t use advertising, every story sounds like a folktale. It’s a sort of sad situation that one of the ways our time is marked is by having characters sit at Starbucks instead of at a coffee shop. What’s the difference? Well, the focus, for one. Readers will probably always feel, these days, that they understand something more if they recognize a brand; this is not to say that readers are stupid but that all of us have been trained to feel that we understand someone more if he or she shops at the same store that we do—it’s knee-jerk. But if I’m writing a story, I don’t want readers to feel like they understand something about my characters just because they’re at Starbucks. Plenty of books demonstrate the depravity of living in a world of brand names. I don’t have anything to say about it, I’m not interested in it, so I’m not going to bring up details that make the conversation change its focus. A man walks into a bar. Good. A man walks into Hooters. What a stupid difference it makes. Now the man is no longer the focus. His life, his movement, his death—gone, erased. Now it’s all glaring orange and white T-shirts and opposing arguments about breasts and chicken wings and coupons and kitsch problems. Bring up that detail, and a writer has to work five times as hard to convince the reader that the man isn’t a chauvinist, that the man is—well, whatever he actually is.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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