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12 Exercises Inspired by the Best Writing from 2015

22 Dec

The time of resolutions is upon us, and for writers, this usually means re-committing ourselves to projects that have stalled and gathered dust. We sit down at our computers, excited, and then realize that we’re still stuck. We need help. Like kids on swings, we need a push to get started; after that, we can take care of ourselves.

For the past 51 weeks, this blog has shared exercises based on some of the best writing from the most interesting, best-written stories, novels, and essays of the year. Here are twelve of those exercises to give your writing momentum as we enter 2016.

1. Withhold Crucial Plot Information

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Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires.

When I was a kid, I devoured Agatha Christie novels, despite knowing that Christie was not showing me everything I needed to solve the mystery. But instead of getting frustrated, my inability to outwit her detective actually made me love the books more. I was in the hands of someone smarter than me, and I knew that not only would all would become clear by the final page, but it would also be shocking.

As writers, we sometimes want to withhold information, but it’s not easy to do. The readers know we’re messing with them and can see the strings being pulled. In Sarah Layden’s, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” she sets up the surprise with lines like this:

Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase.

Find the entire exercise here.

2. Write from Multiple Points of View

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Scott Blackwood is the author of the novel See How Small.

The challenge in writing from multiple points of view is to make each POV sound different. In Scott Blackwood’s See How Small, he follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others:

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

Find the entire exercise here.

3. Make the Most of a High Concept

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Dina Guidubaldi is the author of the story collection How Gone We Got.

The term high concept simply means any story whose premise can distilled to a tagline that often serves as a title, as in George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Kelly Link’s The Faery Handbag, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The challenge with high concept stories is make the story as interesting as its title, to advance the conceit in surprising ways. This means that the story may repeat itself or follow a predictable path but that it should have moments of surprise built into that path.

This is exactly what Dina Guidubaldi does in her story “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

I wanted to love you better so I bought a city. It was small but shaped like your fingerprint, with a mansion for you in the middle of the whorl. It was hard to find, your mansion, but since I’d mapped it, troweled cement for the foundation, chopped logs for the beams, hammered and nailed and sanded until my hands fell off, lugged stones in a canvas sling with my teeth when they did, hung tapestries and draped velvet, since I did all of that, I had a pretty good idea where it was. I landscaped your rose garden and made your maze. I scissorhanded some topiaries for you in the shape of hearts and souls and kept up with their maintenance too; I was on a tight schedule and you were my hours and my half-pasts.

Find the entire exercise here.

4. Use Scenes to Show the Passage of Time

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Rene S. Perez II is the author of the YA novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Some famous writer once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. It’s a true statement that makes you wonder, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the Johns.

In one scene, the novel uses a dinner as a touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

Find the entire exercise here.

5. Show Things Twice

Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian is the author of the story collection Speed Dreaming.

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming. In the story, a man catcalls two young women from his car:

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

Of course, this means we’re expecting the man to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). That scene begins in the same way:

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

Find the entire exercise here.

6. Write a Fast-Starting First Paragraph

Bess Winter

Bess Winter is a Ph.D. student at the fiction program at the University of Cincinnati.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by busy volunteers, making their way through stacks of stories at night and on weekends. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your work easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention? One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. Watch how fast this first paragraph from Bess Winter’s “Are You Running Away?” gets the story moving:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

Find the entire exercise here.

7. Create Moments of Intense Emotion

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Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is the author of the story collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time. A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter with the narrator’s father:

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless.

Find the entire exercise here.

8. Use Forbidden Acts to Create Plot

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Monica McFawn is the author of the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Chekhov famously wrote that if a story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. In other words, if a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element. A good example of using something forbidden to create plot is Monica McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes.” It’s included in her collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, which won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

The story is about Grace, a woman who is babysitting Andy Henderson, a precocious nine-year-old boy. By the end of the first page, the story introduces something forbidden, through the instructions of Andy’s mother:

“I said, keep him off the phone. He doesn’t need to be on the phone today.”

By the story’s end, this rule will have been broken multiple times, with increasingly high stakes.

Find the entire exercise here.

9. Structure a Story around a Fairy Tale

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik is the author of the story collection Snow in May.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May. The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

Find the entire exercise here.

10. Write Dialogue that Creates Conflict

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Laila Lalami is the author of the novel The Moor’s Account.

In real life, we strive for understanding, but in stories, conflict often works best when characters speak as if they don’t hear one another. A great example of dialogue without understanding can be found in Laila Lalami’s novel The Moor’s Account. The novel re-imagines the expedition of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who shipwrecked in Galveston and traveled across Texas, the American Southwest, and Mexico. Lalami tells this story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave who was one of four people to survive the journey

Early in the novel, de Vaca’s expedition claims the land of La Florida for Spain. The expedition is alone on a beach, in the middle of an empty indigenous village. In other words, the only people present are the conquistadors, and yet the notary unrolls a scroll and reads a long declaration claiming the land. The narrator listens and thinks this:

Until Señor Albaniz had arrived at the promises and threats, I had not known that this speech was meant for the Indians. Nor could I understand why it was given here, on this beach, if its intended recipients had already fled their village. How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.

Find the entire exercise here.

11. Use an Omniscient Narrator

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman is the author of the novel On Sal Mal Lane and the editor of the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even). A novel that both requires and uses an omniscient POV is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane.

This omniscient voices takes different forms, sometimes becoming embodied in a kind of we:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

Find the entire exercise here.

12. Defamiliarize the Familiar

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Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the forthcoming story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” In short, stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. For example, the film The Shining transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. All writing can do this, not just genre fiction. A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” By the end of its first line, the familiar has been totally upended:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

Find the entire exercise here.

How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you’ve taken the challenge, that means you’ve written approximately one-third of a novel. Since novels tend to follow a three-act structure, this also means you’re entering the second act—otherwise known the place novel manuscripts go to die. Why? First acts are relatively easy: you’ve got a burning idea, and you begin in a rush. At some point, though, that idea is going to run into the mechanical reality of the second act. The story often becomes larger, expanding beyond the original frame of the opening pages. Multiple narrative lines are more important than ever to sustain the tension. If you’re writing a first draft, you may be discovering that you don’t know where to go or what happens next. You’re writing aimless passages.

There is no easy solution to this problem; just ask any novelist. However, there are a few strategies that can give your prose direction until the overall structure of the novel reveals itself.

Here are twelve exercises to help push your novel forward, based on twelve great pieces of published writing.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. Take a Detour Away from Plot

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky.

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky. He recently published a prequel to that book, the novel, Carrying Albert Home.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks. Homer Hickam offers a good example for how to temporarily derail a plot in his novel Carrying Albert Home:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track. (From Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam. Find the entire exercise here.)

How to Structure Plot around Lack of Change

1 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Most stories are about change. A character goes about her business, and then an asteroid, dead body, love interest, child, or zombie shows up and everything changes. As a basic narrative structure, the change story is hard to escape. Politics revolves around game changers. At the coffee shop where I write this, KT Tunstall is singing “Suddenly I See,” which suggests that she didn’t see it before, meaning something has changed.

But what about those people who never really change? The wonderful poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” If this is true, and if we want to write stories about people trapped in that one damn thing over and over, then we need a new structure.

A story that demonstrates how that structure might look is Christine Grimes’ “The Window.” It was published at 2 Bridges Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins in a bar, where the narrator is at a bar, celebrating a birthday:

I flirted with this beer drinking, pool playing, divorced guy, Eddie, who made eyes at me while I played darts. His shaggy brown hair hung in his eyes and when he laughed, his shoulders shook. I maneuvered over to the bar, where he asked my name, then said Gloria sounded pretty. By the end of my darts game, his buddies showed up. I went over to his table to buy him a beer and one of his friends snickered and elbowed him. Couldn’t appreciate the lovin’ a big woman can offer. Eddie just shook his head and said no thanks. I left the beer there anyway. I took a couple shots with Judy, slept on her scratchy old couch, and overslept. So this morning, I borrowed her largest pair of sweat pants and threw on my dirt shirt before driving like an idiot to get to work.

If this was a story about change, then something would happen at work to push the narrator onto a different storyline than she was previously on. And, in fact, this is what happens. Gloria works at a chip factory as a taste tester, assessing chip quality, and on this day her supervisor announces that the factory will begin hosting public tours and Gloria will be featured. In a story about change, this would be an opportunity for something new to happen. Instead, though, the story essentially repeats the structure of the opening scene over and over, with the same result: Gloria gets her hopes up or tries to make the best of a bad situation but eventually gets humiliated. This is how the story ends. So, why isn’t this boring? After all, it’s the same thing over and over. Why does it work?

The answer in how the story makes us buy into the narrator’s point of view. She keeps believing things will be different, and so do we, even at the story’s end. Three boys take the tour and watch Gloria eat chips. Two of the boys make fun of her weight and then walk away. The third boy, one with a crooked nose, doesn’t make fun of her, and we suspect that perhaps he’s different:

His face has a little smile. We make eye contact. He gets me. Maybe he’s interested, maybe impressed, maybe he likes Gornitos. I showboat a little and chew slowly, rubbing the grains against my palate and swallow. The chip’s a little stale, too oily. When I open my mouth for another taste, Crooked Nose unzips his pants and pulls out his limp dick, waving it at me. He sticks out his tongue and licks the glass before he walks out.

The story isn’t about change but, instead, about believing change can happen when it almost certainly will not. This is a key concept to remember. Plot is about confounding a reader’s expectations, not about change.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure a story around lack of change, using “The Window” by Christine Grimes as a model:

  1. Write a scene that sums up a character. You’re looking for a moment that makes a character (either the person involved or someone who knows him or her) say “That’s me/him/her in a nutshell.” To write the scene, try thinking about the character in terms of winner or loser. Does the character always succeed? Or not? What is a small moment when the character either gets what she wants or does not get it?
  2. Find new ways to repeat the scene. The key is to think about your character’s motivations. What does he or she want? Don’t worry about what they want most. Instead, just list all of the things they want. Either item on your list offers an opportunity for a scene in which the character will or will not get that desired thing.
  3. Create the expectation that this time is different. The character needs to believe this, of course, but so do the readers. We need to see evidence that something is about to change. Someone is going to give the character the benefit of the doubt or, conversely, not give him what he wants. If you make us believe this time is different, then we’ll be surprised when the scene goes exactly as every other scene has gone.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Direct the Reader’s Attention

28 Apr
Stefanie Freele's story, "Davenports and Ottomans" was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans” was published in Tahoma Literary Review.

In his epic story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Adam Johnson uses a strategy for writing descriptions that has fundamentally influenced how I write my own. It’s also a strategy that I see everywhere, in books of all kinds, and I recently came across it once again in Stefanie Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans.” It was published in a relatively new journal that is already developing a reputation for quality work, Tahoma Literary Review. At the TLR website, you can read the story, and the entire issue of the journal, as a pdf.

How the Story Works

In some ways, Johnson’s story, one of the longest (maybe the longest) story ever published in Tin House, has little in common with Freele’s story, which clocks in at just three pages. Yet both stories use the same approach to description.

Here is a passage from the beginning of Johnson’s story:

The boarded-up Outback Steakhouse next door is swamped with FEMA campers, and a darkened AMC 16 is a Lollapalooza of urban camping. It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware. How do you tell your thin bed sheets from your neighbor’s? Can you separate your yellowed, mismatched Tupperware from the world’s? And there are mountains of all-new crap. Outside the campers are bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills, which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.

In this passage, a pattern develops: give details and then tell the reader how to understand those details. So, we see the parking lots full of campers and then get the line, “It’s crazy, but weeks after losing everything, people seem to have more stuff than ever—and it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of.” The same thing happens at the end of the passage. We see the laundry bins, porch chairs, and grills, and then we get this line: “which is what happens when Wal-Mart is your first responder.”

Of course, Johnson reverses the pattern as well: “it’s all the shit you’d want to get rid of: Teflon pans, old towels, coffee cans of silverware.” In that line, he tells us how to understand the list that follows. Mostly, though, throughout the story, a list of details is summed up with a line that indicates how to understand those details. It’s an incredibly effective strategy, as the paragraph from “Hurricanes Anonymous” makes clear.

Now, here is a passage from Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans”:

The crotch in Maribel’s white tights scoots even lower, half-way down her thighs as she enters the hot holiday-decorated living room. The insides of her legs itch and are already chafing from the short walk across the icy parking lot and up the green carpeted stairs that smell like mold and rain, a confining smell she will forever associate with Great Aunt Agnes. She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.

The description is no longer about setting, as it was in Johnson’s story. Instead, it’s become personal, a description of a character’s clothes and the way they make her feel. Still, the strategy is the same: details and interpretation. We see the tights and her thighs, the itching and chafing, and the claustrophobia of these details is connected to setting with the moldy carpet. Then, we get that last line, which adds the character’s thoughts: “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

The details probably made you feel a certain way, but the words hates and nonsense point us in a clear direction for understanding this feeling and these details. There are, in fact, many ways to feel about ill-fitting tights, and the story, in a line, dispatches with all but one, which allows the story to move forward with a clear sense of purpose.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description using “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele as a model:

  1. Decide what to describe. Johnson describes setting: a place. Freele mostly describes a person, though that description eventually brings in some details about place. It doesn’t really matter what you want to describe, only that it (place, person) should be connected to some feeling. That feeling may be vague, but it should be there. When you think about the place/person, you should feel excited or uneasy or something. In stories, neutral is almost never good. We want characters and places that are charged with emotion or sensation.
  2. Describe it with specific details. Eventually, you’ll want details that cohere into a whole that is larger than the parts, but, first, you just need to get some details onto the page. Be as specific as possible. Use the sort of nouns that have adjectives attached to them (“white tights…half-way down her thighs” or “bright purple laundry bins, molded-plastic porch chairs, and the deep black of Weber grills”). You’re giving the reader something to see, an image that may be familiar or surreal. Either way, it’s specific.
  3. Interpret the details. Try using the phrasing from either of Johnson’s sentences as models: “People seem…” or “which is what happens when…” Or, use Freele’s phrasing: “She (emotion verb) (things we just saw). The goal is to not only tell the readers what we just saw/read but also how to think about it.
  4. Revise the passage for coherence. Once you have a line of interpretation, you may find that some details fit better than others. So, cut the ones that don’t fit, add more that do fit, and tweak the interpretive line so that the entire passage makes as much sense as possible.

Good luck.

How to Write a Quick-Starting First Paragraph

10 Mar
Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by volunteers—on the weekend, at night, when they could be reading a favorite novel or, who knows, parasailing. Imagine yourself in these volunteers’ shoes, a tall stack of submissions in front of you and an approaching deadline to complete them. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your story easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention?

One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. One of the quickest and most interesting first paragraphs that I’ve read lately is from Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” It was published in Covered w/ Fur, the weekly digital magazine published by Austin’s indy press A Strange Object. You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Here is the first paragraph. Watch how quickly it kicks into gear:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

In just 51 words, the story introduces two characters, a sense of their personalities and relationship, and a mystery: what are the pipes and how will they cancel school. How does the paragraph do this? By beginning with drama, not information. Think about what we’re not told: the characters’ ages, the nature of the situation, the time of day. Rather than set up the drama, the story immediately zooms in on a moment when a choice is made: Wouldn’t it be great it school were canceled? What is said next (Yeah, it would be great) might not seem like a conscious decision, it functions that way, giving Val permission to proceed. In other words, it’s sometimes not enough to simply introduce a mystery. You also need to introduce a decision that leads to that mystery (even if that decision, at the time, seems like no decision at all).

Once that mystery has been set, you can spend time re-introducing the reader to your characters: who they are, their typical behavior.

In the second paragraph of “Are You Running Away?” Winter does exactly that:

She shoves everything aside. Goldenrod, green, purple study notes. Her chem binder clicks open and the sheets slide everywhere, across the Persian rug and the hardwood and into corners of the room and up against Rolph the snoring yellow lab. She steps on the notes, leaves her dirty shoeprints on them. She doesn’t care. I love Val because she doesn’t care about anything. The first time we met, in the changing room before gym, she looked me up and down and said, Those boobs are low. I could have hated her for that, I guess, but instead I was like, who says that? And I said, Thanks! And, from then on, we were friends, even when everyone else pushed her away. Even when they asked Her? Why? and made sour faces. Later, we snuck things from the pockets of the backpacks they looped onto the outside of their lockers when they went to gym: silver bracelets, digital watches, lip gloss.

Though the paragraph is building character, it also deepens the mystery from the story’s opening. If the characters are already stealing things and acting in other socially unacceptable ways, what else will they do? If I’m a reader working my way through a slush pile, my attention has been grabbed before the end of the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s start a story quickly, with drama, using “Are You Running Away?” by Bess Winter as a model:

  1. Introduce a strong desire. In Winter’s story, the desire is the nearly universal desire of so many school stories and real-life students: get out of school. In other words, the desire doesn’t need to be something we’ve never seen before. Most desires are pretty common. Why else would love stories and stories of adultery be among the oldest we possess?
  2. Introduce a plan to satisfy the desire. At the very least, a character could say, “I have a plan.” But you can do better than that. Hint at the nature of the plan. Be sly. In Winter’s story, Val mentions pipes but not what they’re for or how they might be used. If you read the story, you’ll see that the plan is pretty simple—it’s horrible and frightening, but simple, too. You don’t need something convoluted. The important thing is to tease the reader. In this case, Val also teases the narrator, who is allowed to discover the plan along with us.
  3.  Make the plan hinge on someone’s assent. Someone needs to give the plan the go-ahead. The need for this agreement or cooperation forces the character with the plan to be conniving, to try to persuade another character to go along. Without this external approval, the plan may roll out too easily, without encountering opposition or obstacles. In short, you’re making the characters act on different levels from the very beginning, and those different levels will give the story room to grow and develop.

Good luck.

How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict

3 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food. This is what happened in all of the Jurassic Park movies (and books). Who was the star? The T-Rex. The raptors. In that tense scene in the first film, when the kids are hiding from the raptors in a kitchen, the kids exist primarily to highlight the terrible power of the dinosaurs. Almost certainly, the scenes that you remember from the films involve water trembling in a glass and close-ups of inhuman eyeballs. It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

A story that has figured out this problem is Anabel Graff’s “The Prom at the End of the World.” It recently won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize (which involves a ceremony at, seriously, Prada’s headquarters in Milan) and was published in Prada Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins with two things: an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—an event that we’re immediately told will lead to either complete or near destruction—and a high school prom that is scheduled for the same day as the asteroid’s impact. It’s clear, then, what the source of tension will be. Will the story be told from the cosmic level, at the same level as that photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which the planet appears as a small dot in the vastness of space? In other words, will the asteroid win out and dominate the story? Or, will the story be told from the level of prom, an event of pure human invention and meaning? The conflict has both human and storytelling dimensions. In life, imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate on prom as an asteroid barrels toward you. And yet, you wouldn’t cease to be human, either. This story manages to retain that humanity. It starts with a dress. The narrator has the dress but no date—or even any hope for one. And then she’s asked at the last minute:

Martin Hemley, my science partner, had ended up asking me though, a week before the prom, four days before the news announced that the end was near. “Jenny,” he had said mid throat clear, and my name emerged from his mouth coated in phlegm. “Seeing as we both don’t have a date and—

It’s the end of the world, and this is the best that the narrator can hope for. “Pick me up at seven,” she says, but here is her interior reaction:

I read online once that loneliness is physically painful. Just as you have a drive to avoid physical pain, you have a similarly powerful drive to connect with others and seek companionship—in order to avoid the pain of loneliness. I also read that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.

In that passage, Graff manages to create an impulse—the need to connect and avoid loneliness—that is more immediate and visceral than the approaching asteroid. The power of the passage is such that what comes next—after a space break—is not a reference to the asteroid as you might expect. Instead, it’s this:

Have you ever done this thing where you rub your eyes so much that when you close them you begin to see things?

The passage has dropped us so cleanly into the narrator’s head that it’s natural to stay there. We don’t need to look up at the sky. We will eventually, but our attention has been trained on the interior and not the cosmic. It’s this directing of our attention that makes the story great. Recently I was teaching a class and mentioned how I dislike stories that become such page turners that I’m skimming and skipping ahead. A student said, “But doesn’t that mean the book is good?” I don’t think it does. As a reader, I prefer to read the words as they come. I want to stay in the moment of the story and not race ahead. The way to achieve that, as a writer, is to maintain the reader’s focus on the personal and not whatever plot the personal has been involved in. The plot, if it hovers on the periphery, will provide all the forward momentum the story needs.

The Writing Exercise Let’s focus the reader’s attention on the person amid a cosmic conflict, using “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff as a model:

  1. Choose the conflict. Think high concept: asteroid, dinosaurs, time travel, alien robots that turn into cars, zombies, vampires, pandemics, superheroes, mutants, hobbits, dragons, Old Testament floods, or any of the story lines used by the top grossing movies of the past year. Some of the best books of this year use similar plots but keep the focus on the personal and human. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble features a story about a superhero convention that manages to focus on a girl visiting the hotel. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me manages to keep a pandemic in the background. So, choose whatever story you’re drawn to on the big screen or in beach reads but often find yourself wishing were better than they actually are.
  2. Choose the personal need. Rather than thinking about character in terms of demographic (single white female, old Hispanic male), think about basic human desire: to be loved, to be wanted and valued, to be happy, to be safe and secure, and to make others feel that way, too. Draw from your own life if necessary. When did you feel an acute need for those things? What was the situation? Graff has chosen a prom, which carries with it an almost built-in desire to be wanted. What other common situations are often accompanied by basic desires? Choose one and use it as the focus of your character’s personal conflict.
  3. Introduce the cosmic conflict as a matter of fact. In Graff’s story, an asteroid is coming, and nothing can be done about it. The asteroid simply is, and so it cannot be the primary focus of the story because it’s no more interesting than grass or a wall or other things that exist. It’s interesting because of it’s placement. Like a wall that separates people from one another, the wall instigates the drama but then falls into the background, the way furniture recedes from view in a room. We’re more interested in the people sitting on it. So, introduce the conflict as something that cannot be changed.
  4. State the need. An easy way to do this is to allow the character a moment of reflection, an opportunity to think, “I’m so lonely that…” or “I want to be happy so much that…” Graff does this in a particularly artful way, letting her narrator think about her need as something that exists independently of her. Rather than writing, “I’m so lonely that…” she instead writes, “I read online once that loneliness…” It’s a distancing mechanism. Your character can do something similar. Instead of thinking, “I’m so lonely that…”, let the character think, “I’ve heard that some people are so lonely that…” or “I heard once that loneliness…” Then, when the reflection is over, don’t cut away. Keep our attention focused on the personal. Locate the need in something particular. In Graff’s case, that something is a prom date and the trappings of the night.

Good luck.

12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

baj-bio-pic

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. How to Write a Story Ending

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. One of the migrants he meets is a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

How to Create a Narrative Clock

18 Nov
If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, the new collection of linked stories by Judy Chicurel, tells the coming-of-age-story of a young woman on Long Island in 1972 in the midst of drugs and Vietnam.

If you had to boil my MFA experience down to one lesson about craft, it would be this: give every story a clock. That piece of advice came from the program’s director, Tom Grimes, who had been a close friend of the infamous director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Frank Conroy, and so the advice had the feeling of something inescapably essential and true. The problem was that I had no idea how to do it. As a result, like many writers, I struggled to know when to end a story. So, it’s useful to pay attention to writers who know how to set the timer for their own work.

A great clock can be found in Judy Chicurel’s collection of linked stories, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You GoYou can read a sample chapter from the book here.

How the Novel Works

In this interview with Tom Grimes’ in The Austin Chronicle, he explains how the clock works: “it starts ticking when dramatic action happens” and the clock stops “when the dramatic action ends, regardless of what it is. The clock’s out of time, so you can’t add overtime.” So, the clock is connected to dramatic action, which seems obvious and easy until you try it.

Sometimes, what is needed is an artificial clock, one that you consciously set at the beginning of a story or chapter. Judy Chicurel does this at the very beginning of her chapter, “My Country Right or Wrong,” in the description of Mitch:

I had to talk quickly, though, because once Mitch reached a certain point in his drinking it would be useless to try and get his opinion on anything. The good thing was, the drunker he got, he wouldn’t remember most of what we’d talked about so he wouldn’t be able to repeat it to anyone else we knew. The trick was to get his wisdom on the subject before he reached “the click,” “that place between the last drink you should have had and the last drink you actually drank. You know, the one you’re still tasting the next morning, while your head’s exploding and you’re sitting around waiting for the room to blow up,” he once explained to me.

This is the type of clock that George Saunders has said he uses: “there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up.” In this case, Chicurel’s narrator must finish her yapping—say what she needs to say—before Mitch becomes too drunk. The clock has started ticking.

We know the clock will stop ticking when Mitch is too drunk to talk or remember anything. The question is how do we get there? If Mitch simply sits and drinks until he becomes incoherent and then the narrator leaves, we’re likely to feel disappointed in the way that we’re often disappointed when expected things play out in expected ways.

So, it’s interesting to see how Chicurel interrupts an expected chain of events. About halfway through the chapter, her narrator is watching Mitch carefully: “He raised his glass and drained it. I stared into Mitch’s face. His eyes still looked okay.” Then Mitch “licked the dregs of his glass and signaled to Len for another.” He’s getting drunker and talking about awful things that happened to Vietnam vets, and that’s when Chicurel introduces something unexpected: a bunch of construction workers who tell Mitch they don’t appreciate the way he’s running down America. An argument ensues, which Mitch wins, but winning it involves getting off his bar stool in order to fight and rolling up his pant leg to reveal his wooden leg. The scene ends with the bartender settling everyone down and pouring a round of drinks:

When he began making Mitch’s boilermaker, Mitch put up his hand and shook his head, “no.” He threw some bills on the bar and picked up his jacket with the bottle of Gordon’s in the pocket and began walking toward the door that led to the rooms in the hotel.

The clock has stopped ticking. Mitch is about to drink himself beyond “the click,” as promised at the beginning of the chapter. What is unexpected is how he got to that point: leaving the bar after an argument and finishing his drinking alone, rather than yapping it up at the bar.

In short, Chicurel has not only set a clock, but she found a way to make it stop ticking in a surprising way.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a ticking clock using If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel as a model:

  1. Identify the ongoing action. A clock often involves something anticipated by the characters. This could be someone who walks in the door (or doesn’t, as in Waiting for Godot). It can also be a significant event (which is how every sporting event in the world works, with the audience waiting for the last great play). In both cases, the ongoing action is what happens in the meantime, what the characters are doing while waiting for the anticipated thing. This ongoing action could be purposeful and active, like someone trying to defuse a bomb before the timer runs out. The ongoing action can also be less purposeful and less active, like characters sitting around, talking.
  2. Set the clock. The clock is whatever will put an end to the ongoing action: someone arrives, an event occurs, a timer runs out. Inexperienced writers often use the timer that is most readily available: the course of a day. Their chapters and stories begin in the morning and end when the character goes to bed. The key is to find some other way of ending the action. Chicurel uses the effects of alcohol. In other words, the ongoing action ends when her character has had enough (or more than enough). How can you use that criteria for a clock: when will your character have had enough of whatever is happening?
  3. Notice the clock ticking. Chicurel does this by showing Mitch finishing his drink and ordering a new one. In a sporting event, we check the game clock to see how much time is left. If we’re waiting for someone, we watch the door. Make your characters aware that the clock is ticking, and give them an opportunity to check the time in whatever way is appropriate for your ongoing action.
  4. Introduce something unexpected. If your characters are watching the clock, find a way to make them forget it. We’ve all had the real-life experience of saying, “Oh, look at the time!” (and not in an ironic way). The key is to use the elements available to you given your ongoing action. Chicurel’s characters are drinking in a bar, and so she uses other patrons of the bar as interrupters. How can you identify some element of the ongoing action, some detail that exists in the background, and bring it to the foreground? When this happens, you may be able to distract your characters from the ticking clock.
  5. Stop the clock. No matter the distraction, the clock should still stop ticking. The alarm should ring. This moment becomes especially interesting when it interrupts something: the ongoing action or the unexpected interrupter of that action. Just because the characters have forgotten the clock doesn’t mean you, the writer, have. Experiment with ways to bring the clock back into the story.

Good luck!

An Interview with Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

6 Nov
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree are the authors of Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories written through the lens of the films from the Criterion Collection.

McGriff is an author, translator, and editor. His most recent book, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection. He is also the author of Dismantling the Hills, a translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola, and an edition of David Wevill’s essential writing, To Build My Shadow a Fire.

Tyree was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. He works as an associate editor of The New England Review and is the author of BFI Film Classics: Salesman and the coauthor, with Ben Walters, of BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, from the British Film Institute.

To read their story, “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” and an exercise on writing sentences that push past expected endings, click here.

Michael Noll

The version of “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” in Our Secret Life in the Movies is slightly different than the version published in Tin House. The girl becomes a kid, who we learn, through pronouns, is a boy. A line of dialogue is cut (“I’m seventeen and a half,” she said. “My dad’s a cop down in the hills. He didn’t like my boyfriend. I guess that sums it up.”), as is a line in the last paragraph (I ripped the pom-pom off my ski hat and used it to clean up her face.) I’m curious about your thoughts behind the revisions. To some extent, the scene can be read quite differently depending on the kid’s gender and how we view that act of the characters sharing a sleeping bag in an abandoned mansion. The final version is more fraternal, less potentially creepy. Was that purposeful?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

As readers, we tend to assume that a story is done because it has been published. As writers, we know better, because we stay awake at night worrying about all the ways we got it wrong. The important point to keep in mind is that publication is only one part of the creative process. In this case, the ending seemed better when the genders were reversed because that way you could never rule out the possibility that this character was actually alone the entire time, or that he had run into his doppelganger. Something along those lines. There are at least four kinds of stories – the kind you never get around to writing, the kind you write and abandon, the kind that come out right the first time, and the kind that come at great cost after a struggle and too many drafts to mention. This story was one of the last kind.

Michael Noll

In the book’s introduction, you write that the book began as sketches written while you watched films from the Criterion Collection. At a certain point, you figured out that these sketches were part of a narrative. How did you turn those early sketches into a coherent book? The process of free writing for fun and the process of revising for narrative coherence would seem to be very different. Was there a point at which you created a timeline or outline to follow? Did you discuss in advance of watching certain films or writing certain pieces what direction you might go with them?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

We never had an outline or a timeline. I think we were both surprised as the book gained momentum, almost of its own accord, to look less like a smaller “cycle” of sketches and more like a book. A pile of sketches began to look like it had a trajectory, showing the parallel lives of characters growing up during the last days of the Cold War. It was honestly more a matter of subtraction, of removing material from the book so that the linkages of the stories made more sense and a sense of continuity could be inferred or imagined. The book wound up as something more like a fragmented novel, or a mosaic with some of its pieces missing. The painful thing about working the way we did is that a lot of good material got left on the cutting room floor. Like any film! As with so much writing, paring things down often makes things clearer.

Michael Noll

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan's GZA's album Liquid Swords. GZA discusses the album here.

Our Secret Life in the Movies was inspired, in part, by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA’s album Liquid Swords. GZA discussed the album at WaxPoetics.

It’s exciting to me that this book wears its inspirations so clearly on its sleeves. Many writers work out of homage to or inspiration from another artist, but that influence is not often made explicit in fiction. It’s much more common (it seems to me, anyway) in poetry, music, and, to some extent, film. Do you think the fact that one of you is a poet and the other is a film critic (in addition to being a fiction writer) allowed you the freedom to create this particular narrative structure?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

It’s funny, but we never thought of not mentioning the movies. We could have left them out but we did want to expose the mechanism a little bit, as well as to relate the parts to the whole. We wanted the stories to be accessible to any reader, whether they had seen the movies or not. But we wanted to lead interested parties deeper into the maze with us. One of the influences on the book’s overall structure was the hip-hop album Liquid Swords. How certain snippets of dialogue from the Kung-Fu movies on that album – “I see you are using an old style” or “special technique of shadowboxing” – got repurposed and suddenly made a new kind of sense. We wanted to emulate the way sampling works in music.

Michael Noll

Many of the stories reference Ronald Reagan and the economic disillusionment that much of the country was feeling at the time. For instance, the early piece, “Boxcars,” pairs these two passages:

  • “Bodies without work permits, addicts, drunk high-school kids come down from the valley to slum through the rhythms of the rural American night. Dead bodies, dumped bodies, bodies alive with fear, bodies of elation, bodies that should have known better. A one-day notice in the Bay River Gazette, then the ten-mile stretch of industrial waterfront was closed.”
  • “In the paper, on AM talk radio, at the State Capitol, the regulators blamed the deregulators, the state the country, the county the wood beams collapsing in the rail tunnels, the loggers the environmentalists, and the end-of-days folks blamed our perpetual slipping from grace.”

There’s a pretty clear moral vision at work here, not laying blame, exactly, but clearly articulating a situation that we’ve tended to gloss over with some happy political speech. Did this image of an America in decline arise naturally in the course of viewing the films and writing, or was it something that you discussed and wanted to write about?

Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree

What we’ve both found is that a lot of writing is just luck. You stumble around in the dark, rely on your instincts, and try to stick to your impulses, no matter how strange those impulses might be (in one of our stories the speaker’s child is an invisible boy, in another the speaker’s father marries an egg). All the leitmotifs and connections and echoes in Our Secret Life in the Movies are there because we both wrote stories rooted in our own experiences, which happened to parallel each other in unexpected ways. This isn’t a work of autobiography by any stretch, but it does reflect some facets of the experiences of working-class life for folks in our generation. In one sense, we got lucky that there was so much overlap in the book. But, as writers, it was our job to craft a book and tell good stories, not just rely on luck. We highlighted many of these overlaps and themes in the revision process, and we had some great help from trusted readers, friends, and our editors at A Strange Object. I think the important point here is that we didn’t set out to move from A to B and specifically hit on themes X,Y, and Z. Instead, we had faith that the interesting and worthwhile would surface in our writing if we kept exploring our shared love for the movies and our desire to be connected to them.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with David Gordon

30 Oct
David Gordon's novel The Serialist swept a series of major Japanese literary awards and was turned into a major motion picture in Japan. His new story collection is White Tiger on Snow Mountain.

Photo Credit: Michael Sharkey               David Gordon’s novel The Serialist swept a series of major Japanese literary awards and was turned into a major motion picture in Japan. His new story collection is White Tiger on Snow Mountain.

David Gordon’s first novel, The Serialist, was made into a major motion picture in Japan. It also won the VCU/Cabell First Novel Award and was a finalist for an Edgar Award. He is also the author of the novel, Mystery Girl, and, most recently, the story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain. His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Purple, and Fence. Gordon was born in New York City, attended Sarah Lawrence College, and holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature and an MFA in Writing, both from Columbia University. He has worked in film, fashion, publishing and pornography.

To read his story “Man-Boob Summer” and an exercise on writing sex scenes, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the sex scene in “Man-Boob Summer.” It contains actual sex, not just a reference to it, and it’s both realistic and sexy. This is notable because there’s so much awful sex writing in fiction (notably Tom Wolfe’s attempt in I Am Charlotte Simmons: “the flood in her loins washed morals, despair and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his”). So, I guess the key to a good sex scene is no metaphors or abstract language. What else do you keep in mind as you approach a scene like this?

David Gordon

Yikes, that is a choice example. And, as so often with bad metaphors, it is impossible to really picture: A  cloud that floods loins? A cologne flushing out morals and despair? Poor Charlotte!

I think your rule of thumb is good, and while I hope I never cross that line, I might crank up the intensity of the language, depending on the mood of the scene. I think that is my real rule: Treat a sex scene like any other scene. And the first step of writing any scene at all is to ask do I even need it? Is it essential to the story? Most lame sex scenes, whether cringe-inducing or just boring and generic (cut to slo-mo heaving) share the characteristic of being unnecessary. So, just like a scene of dinner or walking home or anything else, why is it essential? Why can’t we just say, “They had sex” or “They had dinner,” or “After dinner, they had sex then walked home.” If it is necessary, it is adding something vital that moves us forward, not always plot maybe, but telling us something, about these people, their relationship, their world: something is revealed. Then, all my stylistic or tonal choices, the amount of “cologne,” is based on that. In other words, I want to write a good scene, not necessarily a “sexy” one. In the end whether it turns romantic or erotic or awkward or sad depends on the people and the moment. After all, every kiss is different.

Michael Noll

You describe characters’ bodies a lot in the collection. In this story, there’s the description of the man with “one pendulous female breast” and the lifeguard, whose “legs were long and slender, and…kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.” What I love about these descriptions is that they’re in motion, as opposed to static, and they lead to drama (especially the legs). Is this something that comes to you naturally or the product of revision?

David Gordon

Hmmm, good question. This is not something I have really thought about before, so I suppose it is “natural” in the sense of intuitive. But, that said, those specific wordings often come during revision, which is to say they come out of the process of trying as best I can to make the story feel real and alive, to myself and to the reader. For me, this does often mean trying to get at as much movement and physical or sensual information as I can. I tend to think that the way people sit and move, the light in the window and the smell of their coffee is as important as what they’re saying or thinking. I don’t mean necessarily being very detailed or longer, since some these descriptions are quite short, but to try as best I can to make something really happen in language, the way you can say a sculpture of person walking is happening in stone. Even if it is just one verb, I want the right verb.

Michael Noll

How did you know where to end the story? It ends after a sex scene and just before, the last sentence seems to suggest, another sex scene is about to begin. There’s a sense that the characters are beginning some kind of relationship, however fleeting. Were you tempted to write about that relationship, or did you always know where the story ended?

David Gordon

David Gordon's new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, "Man-Boob Summer," was published in The Paris Review.

David Gordon’s new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, “Man-Boob Summer,” was published in The Paris Review.

I knew that scene was the last scene. I actually had a very strong sense of that moment, the turn where things change between them after sex—I wanted that feeling of a sudden slap in the face, a sudden chill—and I began to wonder, who are these people and how did they get there? So I had that in mind and I sort of wrote toward it. But at first it ended a bit sooner, on the more dark or melancholy imagery. Then later on—I think I might have even already shown the story to some people who found it really sad and heavy—I just felt like I wanted to let a little bit more light or air in at the end. Just a little though…Really, it sounds strange but it is like I’d gotten to know this non-existent person in my mind and I thought, yes, this is what she would do.

I agree with you that the relationship feels like it will go on but maybe just for another day or week or hour even. I wasn’t thinking about continuing the story, not at all, I knew this was the end, but about finding the right tone or mix of colors to express how I saw them right then, if that makes sense. That was the feeling I was trying to find all along—that scene. Think of it as a painting: I was trying to just paint in every emotional facet I could to show what was going on between these two people and who they were separately and together, and to me anyway, that felt like the last little touch. Maybe I’d write it differently today. Who knows?

Michael Noll

Your work plays with genre quite a bit—not just your novel The Serialist, about a ghostwriter writing the memoir of a serial killer who may still be actively killing—but also the last story in this collection, “The Amateur,” which is a hard-boiled story about organized crime and murder. What draws you to these kinds of stories? I’ve recently heard several writers try to explain the difference between genre and literary fiction, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by their answers. What do you thinks separates the two—if anything does?

David Gordon

I think it is one of those things where the more you try to define it more mixed up it gets. Which is fine, since as a reader there is little difference to me—I like what I like—and as a writer I am just happy to have what I think is a good idea. I will really do anything that works or helps me get it written. Sometimes in these stories I have also drawn on horror and sci-fi—for imagery and for structuring devices that I think help make a scene feel exciting or tense or surprising. I mean, certainly scholars can talk about a genre like crime or sci-fi having its own historical development, but as a writer, I think about genre as form. These are forms I can explore, use, change or ignore the same way a poet can write free verse or rhymed, use a sonnet or a haiku—and to think of one as inherently better than the others seems absurd. In The Serialist I found that having that form—a detective story—shaped the narrative but also sort of focused and drove it forward, but “The Amateur” is almost the opposite: I had that idea for years, but could not figure out how to write it until I found myself thinking about Borges and those really brief stories he has that contain a novel’s worth of material in eight pages, and then about classic sort of framed tales like those by Conrad or James. So there you see some very high-brow literary teachers helped me write my pulpy New Jersey crime story.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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