Tag Archives: how to write a short story

How to Use Mystifying Detail to Create Conflict

31 Oct
full_swiftbrutal

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

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

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

How the Story Works

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

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

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

The Writing Exercise

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

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

Happy Halloween!

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How to Make and Thwart Plans

11 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

10 Exercises for Creating Characters

3 Jan

Happy new year! To celebrate the arrival of 2017, let’s look back at ten exercises on creating, describing, and developing characters from 2016.

1. Introduce Characters through Misdirection

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach in this exercise.

2. Describe Characters Without Relying On Mirrors

Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford is a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here.

3. Add Physical Description to Dialogue

Saslow

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post. Find an exercise based on it here.

4. Create an Emotional Backdrop for Characters

Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel is Listen to Me.

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. Find an exercise based on it here.

5. Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is the author of the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. You can read an exercise based on it here.

6. Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

Unknown

Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can find an exercise based on it here.

7. Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here.

8. Reveal Tension Between Characters Indirectly

Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. You can find an exercise based on it here.

9. Build Character within Action Scenes

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that somethingbuilds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here.

10. Create Stand-Ins for Characters

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection Man and Wife.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” You can read an exercise on how she does it here.

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

17 Nov
image

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, Word Riot, Requited, Voices de la Luna and elsewhere.  Born to parents of African-American and Sicilian decent, she is the fiction editor of Apogee Journal and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. She is also the co-literary coordinator of the Mixed Remixed Festival, held annually at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Esme-Michelle is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a recipient of fellowships from Callaloo, Kimbilio, and Columbia University.

For a writing exercise about describing objects in a room based on Watkins’ story “Xochimilco,” click here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses writing from a child’s point of view, ordering a description of place, and finding a setting that can convey the complexity of Los Angeles.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be biracial—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esmé-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

Originally posted in February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Put Setting to Work

15 Nov
Boston-Review-logo


“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of story. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put setting to work, using “Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins as a model:

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain?

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

18 Aug
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 speculative fiction novel House of Shattered Wings.

Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer and history geek who lives in Paris. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, ClarkesworldInterzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her trilogy Obsidian and Blood is set in Ancient Mexico, and her novel House of Shattered Wings is set in a post-Apocalyptic Paris and features Fallen angels, a washed-out alchemist and a former Vietnamese immortal with a grudge. She has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read de Bodard’s story “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually—my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “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.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight "rules" for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

Originally published in March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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