Tag Archives: George Saunders

How to Move Between Past and Present

1 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-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle-Toungate’s next collection How the Sun Burns.

In some stories, the events of the present gain meaning when viewed alongside the character’s past. The writer of a story like that, however, quickly discovers a problem that must be solved: How do you switch between the time periods? Do you block the periods into paragraphs or sections? Or is there a way to make the switch more fluid?

One writer who succeeds in finding a fluid movement through past and present is Erin Pringle-Toungate in her story, “The Midwife.” The story was published at Glint Literary Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The trouble with blocking the past and present into separate chunks, set off by space breaks, is that the structure can begin to feel unwieldy. To avoid that problem, Pringle-Toungate does two things:

  1. Switches between past and present on a sentence-by-sentence level
  2. Does not announce that the switches are occurring.

To illustrate how this works, look at the story’s opening:

“Along the block of mostly abandoned storefronts, the barber turns the sign to Sorry we’re CLOSED Please come back tomorrow, and moves the red plastic arrow to 7 AM. No customers came in today, yesterday, or the day before. But no matter, you keep the same hours every day, said her father when, after her mother’s hysterectomy, he began officially training her for her inheritance.”

The first two sentences are set in the story’s present. They’re also written in present tense, which will serve as a reliable indicator of time. The switch comes with the third sentence, when the story adds the father’s voice, spoken from the past. Notice how we don’t learn that the words, “But no matter, you keep the same hours every day,” are 1) her father’s and 2) from the past until the attribution (“said her father”). In effect, we’ve slid from present to past without knowing it. In a way, this switch is the same used by our minds, which move back and forth in time—between present observation and memory—constantly, often blurring the two.

By introducing this switching strategy immediately, Pringle-Toungate makes it possible for the story to dip into the past at any moment, for as long or briefly as it wants—an unimaginable freedom to someone who has played with a block structure of time. For instance, Pringle-Toungate actually marks the next switch between past and present with a paragraph break, but because of how she introduces time in the first paragraph, this more formal switch seems just as natural:

“She sweeps the floor, cleans the mirror, wipes the counter, changes the disinfectant, ties up the laundry bag of towels, and lets down the blinds. She didn’t have a customer all morning, but she didn’t really expect to.

Work ethic, her father said. Dependability, he insisted. Same hours every day. Reliability is trustworthiness. Trustworthiness earns respect. Respect runs a business and fills our stomachs.”

If this seems impossible to pull off, you can take comfort in the fact that Pringle-Toungate didn’t arrive at this structure immediately, as you’ll learn in her Q&A on Thursday.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s switch between past and present using the first paragraph of “The Midwife” as a model. First, you’ll need to create the two time periods:

  1. Create a character engaged in an ongoing action. In “The Midwife” that action is the deliveries. The action could be anything that is an everyday routine: going to work, picking up kids from school, sitting in church or class, or pulling weeds in the garden. Or, the routine could be something more sinister. Keep in mind Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil.” Even awful things can be become routine if you do them enough.
  2. Give the character a voice to listen to. The voice should be from someone in the past. In “The Midwife” the voice belongs to the character’s father. George Saunders uses a similar strategy in “Tenth of December”:

“He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.

Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.”

Saunders introduces the voice, and soon after the story goes into the character’s past. In other words, the voice creates the doorway to that past.

Now, let’s put your character and the voice into conversation, which is essentially the way that Pringle-Toungate and Saunders both move back and forth in time.

  1. Begin with your character in the midst of the everyday routine. Don’t explain the routine, just describe the actions that the character performs with the thoughtless confidence that comes with having done a thing countless times. This robotic movement sets up the next step.
  2. Let the character think about the voice from his/her past. Don’t use a filter (She thought about So-and-so, who used to say…). Instead, drop the dialogue or voice into the sentence without introduction. The idea is that you’re letting the reader listen to the character’s thoughts as he/she performs the routine.
  3. Now, move back and forth between these two time periods whenever seems most natural. Play with it. Try staying in each period for longer and shorter amounts of sentences. While you’re using the voice as a portal to the past, you can move beyond the voice into more detailed memories

Good luck and have fun.

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An Interview with Kelly Luce

2 May
Kelly Luce's debut collection of stories will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Kelly Luce’s debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Not many writer biographies can go toe-to-toe with the condensed history of Kelly Luce: She once attended a fiction seminar in Bulgaria, she was the writer-in-residence at the house where Jack Kerouac lived while writing Dharma Bums, and her forthcoming collection of stories has the knockout title Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail.

In this interview, Luce discusses first sentences, the challenge of finding the right publisher, and books that make her say, “Oh! Oohhhhh!”

Michael Noll

The story has a perfect first sentence: simple, yet absolutely essential to the story. It accomplishes in seven words what some writers spend paragraphs doing: creating and then breaking a routine in order to find where the story begins. What was your approach to writing this opening?

Kelly Luce

It’s funny; when I read this question I thought about the first sentence (“Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself.”) and felt sure that it had been there since the start, from draft one. It seems like such an obvious opening. Maybe too obvious, you know? Then I dug up my early drafts. After having a drink to brace myself, I was able to face them…and I discovered that that line didn’t show up until draft 7. I don’t remember what the process was like that brought me to write it. Maybe this is a testament to how hard it is to put into words what is simple and true.

Michael Noll

Very early in the story, this paragraph appears:

“Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.”

I love this paragraph because of its speed. The distance between “two people are in trouble” and “the wrong one dies” is vast—an entire story lies in between—and yet the paragraph doesn’t bother with any of that. It keeps rushing along, moving from the comedy (in the Shakespearean sense) of “cosmic mix-up” to the tragedy of “they all live sadly ever after.” Is this speed something you purposefully strive and revise for, or is it present in the earliest drafts?

Kelly Luce

Thank you. Though this paragraph also came fairly late in the drafting process, after I decided to try introducing the cover-story subplot, it came out fully formed in one of those rare moments when the writing goes on auto-pilot for a few lines. Rhythm and sound is one of my favorite things about writing, the way syllables and commas pile up and suddenly stop, the way long sentences full of short words interact with short ones made of long words, the interplay between vowels and consonants, the way internal rhyme can create gravity. It becomes very physical. So I feel like the answer to your question is, both: I strive and revise for appropriate rhythm, and sometimes it happens in draft one; other times the conditions aren’t right for it to show up until draft ten.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, the term “magical realism” was popular, mostly due to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. There weren’t a lot of American writers working in that style, and some critics wondered if it was possible to use it in this country. Yet here we are a few years later, and the most influential American short story writers are Aimee Bender and George Saunders, whose absurdist, fantastical stories are perhaps an American adaptation of magical realism. Your writing also seems to fall into this category, so I’m curious how you would explain its appeal. How did the American short story move from the dirty realism of Raymond Carver to the contemporary mixture of fantasy/comic-book/genre/absurdist/supernatural elements?

Kelly Luce

I’d love to know more about this, myself. I have no idea why the American short story has moved beyond Carver’s realism, other than to say that things always change, and what’s fashionable in one era is sort of inevitably not in the next. I mean, what made Carver who he was as a writer (other than Gordon Lish)? What was he shifting away from? That might help us figure out why we’ve moved on from his example, at least somewhat. It could be that this generation of writers and readers is reacting to that generation, looking for something different, or at least being willing to consider something different. Certainly other countries have not suffered as much (I consider it a suffering) from a dearth of imaginative/non-realistic writing during this time. What was it about America, specifically, that made realism the desired form of expression during that time?
Still, from what I’ve read of lit mags and recently released collections, as well as at workshops I’ve participated in during recent years, I’d say the dirty realist story still has quite a following. Maybe, with the advent of online publishing, magazines have been able to take a few more chances on what they publish, so there’s both more supply and demand of the weirder stuff. Or maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.
We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so. Or maybe like me, they read Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Pastoralia and went, Oh! Oohhhhh!
Michael Noll

You’re a really talented writer with an enviable body of work—stories in reputable journals, prestigious fellowships. Your debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October, and reviewers will almost certainly compare the writing to that of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, two highly regarded and popular writers.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

As a result, your book seems like it would be awfully desirable from a publisher’s perspective.

Yet when readers open it, they won’t find the name of a major, New York-based publisher. Instead, they’ll see the name of a new independent press based in Austin—A Strange Object. Can you write a little about how this relationship with A Strange Object came about? What makes A Strange Object a great partner for your collection?

Kelly Luce

Will you marry me? Or can I pay you to come over every day and tell me nice things?

The relationship with A Strange Object started a few years ago, when Jill Meyers was editor of American Short Fiction and accepted a short-short of mine for a series on their website. That’s how I met her and Callie Collins, who worked at ASF as well. When they started A Strange Object, I was one of the writers they contacted about submitting a MS.

I always had a sense that I wanted this book to go to an indie press, and that my novel, which I’ve been at for a few years, would be the New York book. Maybe it’s because I heard so many rumors about story collections being treated like redheaded step-kids by the big house publishers, or maybe it’s because I never had the guts to push my agent, who represented my novel, to do anything with the stories. A\SO is the place for this book, absolutely. They get the strangeness, they love things about it I’d forgotten, and through editing they’ve made it a way better book than it was when I submitted it to them. The design is gorgeous, smart, clean. The cover artist is incredible. When you’re working with a small press, you’re pressed right up against the taste of the people who run it. And these guys are like…I don’t know. They’re not like anybody, which is the point. I have a crush on them.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

George Saunders on Narrative Pace

7 Feb
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George Saunders, author of the new story collection, “Tenth of December.” The title story inspired this writing exercise.

A recent headline in The New York Times Magazine announced, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Such praise may be news to many readers, but for the dedicated followers of Saunders’ stories and essays it only confirms the obvious. Pick up a new book of stories by any promising young writer, and you’ll likely find the influence of Saunders’ first two story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia.

After reading “Tenth of December,” you, too, may be wondering, how you can write like George Saunders. Though he is on tour for his new book, Saunders took a moment to discuss his approach to writing. He focused on the question of how to balance narrative voice with story clarity.

“My method,” Saunders wrote, “is to write more than I need and then radically prune back, vis the criteria that there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up – it all has to be shaped and fast and serve a purpose.”

So, how fast should the internal monologue move? How long can you spend in a narrator’s head before moving the story along?

“It’s nice if the time spent in-head is somewhat mimetic of outside events,” Saunders wrote. For instance, if “90 pages [pass] while the character walks from point A to point B five feet away, [that’s}not so mimetic.”

Given this advice, here’s a quick exercise that can help determine how fast or slow your narrative should move:

  • What is your story’s clock? If a timer is set in the first page, when will it ring? In the case of “The Tenth of December,” the timer rings twice: once when the boy reaches the pond and again when the man reaches the house. Ask yourself: Does my story have a clock? If so, can you hear it ticking in every page? Even a quick reference to the clock can help create a sense of urgency in the reader.

To learn more about George Saunders’ approach to writing, check out this recent appearance on The Colbert Report and this interview with The New Yorker. You can also watch Saunders read from his work and answer questions at Front Porch Journal To find another writing exercise based on his story, click here.

February 2013

Simple Stories, Complex Worlds

4 Feb
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George Saunders’ story collection, “Tenth of December,” includes the story discussed here.

George Saunders is not only an amazing writer. He’s a guru. People talk about him with the reverence of pilgrims returning from a visit with the man at the top of the mountain. His stories have the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time—laughing at their absurdity (dead aunt’s reanimated corpse encourages her nephew to show his—ahem—at the Hooters-like restaurant where he waits tables) and crying because the stories reveal a humanity so fresh and true that our perception of the world is deepened. Reading a George Saunders story can be like putting on glasses for the first time.

So let’s say this now: no writing exercise can make you as wise as George Saunders. You can, however, learn how he structures a story, introduces a character, constructs a scene, writes dialogue, or describes a dog. In other words, you can build a toolbox of George-Saunders wrenches and use those wrenches in your own work. If you are wise or smart or imaginative—or even if you’re not—you might write a pretty good story. Maybe an awesome one.

Even if you don’t, you still get to appreciate and spend time with a great story.

So, to kick off this blog, I want to begin with one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. It was originally published in The New Yorker, and you can find it here.

How the Story Works

Here are the two best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.

  • Every story should be easily explained. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Boy gets on raft, floats south on river with an escaped slave. Hamlet: Man kills king; prince must kill man. These summaries barely touch the true nature of these classics, and that is the point. When the story is simple, it doesn’t need to spend a lot of time explaining and clarifying. As a writer, you want to spend your words doing interesting things, pondering interesting thoughts, being funny or poignant. You don’t want the reader asking, “Tell me again, why is Huck on the raft?”
  • Every story exists in a world. Thus, you must create a story (man murders king) and also a world for it to inhabit. This world will have rules, and its characters will have personalities, obsessions, and lives that exist outside of the story. It is these personalities, obsessions, and lives that will inform the story and give it depth. That depth is why Hamlet asks “To be or not to be” rather than “Should I stab my uncle or bash in his head?”

“Tenth of December” exemplifies this advice. Here’s the story: Man tries to freeze himself to death, and boy tries to give him a coat; but boy falls through ice on pond, so man must save boy. It’s a story rocket-bound for chicken-soup sentimentality. The reason it doesn’t get there is because of the world Saunders creates.

Let’s focus on the opening section, the voice of the boy, Robin. Though we’re dropped into his head without explanation or preface, we’re quickly given clear markers of what will happen:

  • “Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam.”
  • “Whoa, cold, dang. Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill.”
  • “Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her.”

Even though most of the narration is about Robin’s fantasy world, we already know by the end of the first page (online version) that the weather is bitterly cold, that’s he’s going to a pond, and that he’s following someone’s tracks. The clarity of the story allows Saunders to play with the boy’s voice, to allow the reader to indulge with Robin in tangents about torture at the hands of fantasy beings—and it is these indulgences which make the story great.

The Writing Exercise

It’s an easy one.

  1. Write a simple plot summary (dog bites man; man shoots dog). Try to limit the summary to less than ten words. We’re aiming for clarity.
  2. Create two characters. Give them each one trait and one desire that is related to the trait. (Dog owner: accountant who eats chocolate even though he is allergic to it; he’s having an allergy attack and needs to get to the emergency room. Man who gets bitten: stay-at-home dad whose baby cries all the time; the man is trying not to resent the baby.)
  3. Give the characters a point of connection. (In this case, it’s the dog. In the Saunders story, it’s the pond.) The connection should have a trait of its own. (Pond isn’t quite frozen; dog has three legs and boldly goes about it’s business anyway.)

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is writing the first line. If you can do these three things, you can begin a story. If you keep these three things in mind as you write, you can play with the prose and characters and have fun, which is the point. It’s why we write.

So have fun. Happy writing.

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