Tag Archives: how to write a story

An Interview with Jaime Netzer

10 Apr
Jaime Netzer's journalism has appeared widely, and her story,

Jaime Netzer’s journalism has appeared widely, and her story, “How to Die” was published in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger.

Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and journalist living in Austin. She served as the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence in Smithville, TX, and the nonfiction editor for the literary journal Front Porch. Her fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Parcel, and Twelve Stories; her journalism has appeared all over, including (most recently) Variety, USA Today Special Publications, Cowboys and Indians, and Austin Monthly.

To read an exercise on writing self-aware prose and Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” click here.

Michael Noll

The story starts really fast: right to the reality show and its irresistible hook. Did the story always start this way? Or was this a conscious decision that you made, to start in a way that would immediately grab the reader?

Jaime Netzer

I started this story in the thick of work on my thesis project at Texas State, back in the spring of 2012. I had been plodding away at this truly terrible attempt at a novel while also enrolled in a workshop with Tom Grimes, who asked me to turn in something other than part of the thesis, for everyone’s sake, I think. My memory is usually awful but I do remember the idea coming to me sort of whole, or something close to it. I wanted to write about a girl competing on a reality show to earn her own suicide. The published version is not that different from the version I sat down and wrote in one fell swoop—which is wholly unusual for me. Small things changed, but this story always felt more like play than work. Her voice was there from the start, which I think helped a lot.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Kansas City, which caught my eye, not just because I’m from Kansas, but because I so rarely read stories set in KC. In fact, I can’t think of another short story set there. Did you ever consider setting the story in a generic location, or did you always want to put it in Kansas City, at Arrowhead?

Jaime Netzer

I’m from Kansas too, just west of Kansas City. So I’ve sat in that weird concrete stadium and seen its shadows and felt the height and bowl-feeling of it—it’s an amazing place to watch a game, and it’s weird and cold and huge, and somehow that felt like the right place to start. The other part of this answer, honestly, is that I’m a chicken, and I don’t usually set stories places I haven’t had some serious experience with. The story is obviously a bit speculative, a bit not-here, not-now, but I wanted it very, very close to now and here. So I wanted to set it somewhere, and Kansas City felt right. Lawrence, the narrator’s name, is actually the name of my hometown.

Michael Noll

The thing I love most about this story is the demented sexuality of the narrator, the way she tries to seduce the guy who will interview her for the TV show. Her sexuality, and the way she wields it, is so unexpected. The story could have easily been about how the character lacks power and so wants to die, but the story gives her incredible power and control. Is this one of those characterizations that just appears in your head one day, or did you have to write toward a point of discovery, when you realized who the character was?

Jaime Netzer

She came to me fully formed, but I wouldn’t say her sexuality is demented at all, actually. And maybe it’s because she was always the voice in my head, but it doesn’t seem unexpected to me, either. Don’t we all wield our sexuality in an attempt to get what we want? I never saw her as lacking power, so in my head, the story hasn’t given power to her. She is the story, her power and control (and desires) are the story.

Michael Noll

A lot of readers will probably think of The Hunger Games when reading this story. I’m curious how much you thought about it. Did you read the books or watch the movies and feel compelled to write your own (different, weirder, better) version? Or is the connection coincidental or the result of reality TV’s prevalence in our lives?

Jaime Netzer

To be honest, I didn’t give The Hunger Games a moment’s thought when writing it—I saw one of the movies (now I’m curious about the timing) at some point, but it’s the opposite story, right? Those people are not fighting of their own accord, and they’re fighting to live. I have, however, long admired Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and The Hunger Games‘ premise is fantastic. I actually had three people ask me if I’d seen Black Mirror after reading the story. I haven’t, but apparently it’s similar in tone and there may have even been an episode with a reality show of some kind.

April 2015

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

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An Interview with Nicole Haroutunian

2 Apr
Nicole Haroutunian's debut collection, Speed Dreaming, has been called

The Paris Review blog compared Nicole Haroutunian’s debut collection, Speed Dreaming, to the HBO hit Girls: “Her protagonists, all women, admit to melodrama, but they go one step further than the characters in Girls in that they question what’s behind their woe-is-me antics.

Nicole Haroutunian’s short fiction has appeared in the LiterarianTin House Flash Fridays, Vol. 1 BrooklynTwo Serious Ladies, and other publications. Her short story “Youse” was the winner of the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Short Story Contest. She is coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York, works as a museum educator, and lives with her husband in Woodside, Queens. Her first story collection, Speed Dreaming, was recently published by Little A.

To read an exercise on showing dramatic elements twice and her story, “Youse,” click here.

In this interview, Haroutunian discusses the inspiration for her story, “Youse,” the process of revising a published story for inclusion in a collection, and one possible difference between literary and young adult fiction.

Michael Noll

“Youse” is a story that could have gone in a very different direction. We could have seen Margaret the way other people see her, as an object of pity, but the story doesn’t allow that view. Was it difficult to avoid sliding into that perspective, or did the story always see the world so firmly through Margaret’s eyes that pity wasn’t a possibility?

Nicole Haroutunian

As is often the case, I had to trick myself into starting this story with a self-devised writing exercise. I work as a museum educator at, among other places, the American Folk Art Museum. One of my favorite branches of the collection is schoolgirl art—amazing samplers, embroideries and watercolors done by 18th-19th century schoolgirls. Some of this work takes the shape of mourning drawings—ritualized drawings made to commemorate a death. I chose a selection of schoolgirl art, wrote descriptions of each work, and then tried to weave a contemporary story around those descriptions, with each new scene sparked by another artwork. One of the first paragraphs I wrote was about a mourning drawing created for the artist’s father, hence Margaret’s father’s death. Eventually, Margaret’s story took shape and the framework could be excised; there’s no explicit trace of the art in the story now. My residual positive associations with schoolgirl art still come through, though; these girls exhibited such strength, personal vision and insightfulness—I transferred those feelings onto, or into, Margaret. Of course it’s possible to feel pity for the schoolgirl artists—they dealt with a lot of death and had to live within the parameters of a pretty circumscribed life—but they also had a lot of privilege. The same is true of Margaret. At least half of the adversity she faces is of her own making and comes from a place of privilege, so although I have empathy for her, it’s hard to feel too sorry for her.

Michael Noll

The story contains a lot of heavy material: a dead father, catcalling from some pretty sketchy guys, and a trade of sexual favors for exam answers. How did you manage to keep all those balls in the air, so to speak? Did you ever wonder if you’d included too much for a single story?

Nicole Haroutunian

I see this story as being about the relationships between a pair of teen girls and their mothers. All the material you mention is there to serve the tension in and development of these relationships. So it didn’t feel like too much to me because the central concerns of the story seemed fairly straightforward in the midst of all the drama.

Michael Noll

The ending is lovely, a very small and intimate moment. Did you always have it in mind? Or did it occur to you as the story came together?

Nicole Haroutunian

Following from my last answer, it took me many, many drafts to decide which relationship was truly at the center of the story—Margaret and Joanna or Margaret and her mother. When I finally decided it was Margaret and her mother, I knew I wanted the last moment of the story to be between the two of them. When the story was originally published in the Literarian, a few things were different—the major one is that it was set in the 2010s rather than the 1990s (I knocked it back fifteen years so that it was plausible, in the context of my collection, that Margaret could grow up to become Meg, the protagonist of a few other stories). The last few lines, though, are in a slightly different order. It’s really subtle, but I think it does change the ending for the better.

Michael Noll

Since the story is about teenagers, I’m curious about how you would categorize your fiction. I’ve heard of writers who write a book that they imagine is literary fiction and then an agent says, no, this should sell as a young adult novel. (This happened with Margo Rabb’s forthcoming Kissing in America.) Do you think about these distinctions at all? Do you think there’s a difference?

Nicole Haroutunian

Before last summer, when I worked as a teaching artist for a book club summer camp for 9-13 year olds, I hadn’t read much, if any, young adult literature since I was a teenager. I’ve still read very little, so I don’t say this with a lot of confidence, but what I thought I noticed is that often the reader has to do less work when reading young adult literature and more work when reading literary fiction. YA books are forthcoming in a way that my stories aren’t. There’s more overt emotion, plot and resolution; there’s less ambiguity. In literary fiction, there’s often a lot of room for readers to make their own meaning. To me, it’s not about how old the characters in the story are, but how the fiction is written. I don’t think this is true in every case, of course, and it’s also not a value judgment. Some of my literary touchstones for this story were Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, both of which I think are sometimes categorized as YA, but don’t read that way for me despite being about teenagers. I think a young reader would probably find “Youse” a little, or a lot, boring. It ends with the implication that someone is about to take a sip from a glass; a teenager would probably expect a little more in the way of payoff.

April 2015

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

An Interview with Bess Winter

12 Mar
Bess Winter's fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter’s fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has lived in Kansas City, MO, Victoria, BC, Sackville, NB, Bowling Green, OH, and Cincinnati, OH. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She was Podcast Editor at The Collagist, served as a Guest Fiction Editor for the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and is currently a PhD-fiction student at University of Cincinnati.

To read her story “Are You Running Away?” and an exercise on writing quick-starting first paragraphs, click here.

In this interview, Winter discusses quick-starting stories, quick characterizations, and writing past epiphanies.

Michael Noll

I love how fast the story opens, moving from “fuck school” to a mysterious possibility for how to get school canceled in one short paragraph. Did the story always begin this quickly? Or did you have to cut and revise your way to this beginning?

Bess Winter

The story always began this quickly. In fact, I’m most comfortable with stories that are on the shorter side, so it takes a lot of coaxing and prodding to get me to write long, well, anything: sentences, paragraphs, etc. I’m envious of writers who can blast out a lot of material and then scale back. Also, because this is a story that’s more about what happens because of, and coincidental to, “the plan,” rather than the plan, itself, it felt best to get the big stuff out of the way A.S.A.P. and move on to the less causal elements of story. Make the most outrageous stuff a given. They’re going to get school canceled. Pipes will be involved.

Michael Noll

The story also quickly establishes characters: Val doesn’t care, and the narrator finds this trait interesting when everyone else finds it grating. Again, I’m curious about your approach to these characterizations. Do you write your way into them? In other words, do the characters take shape on the page, and eventually you’re able to sum them up quickly? Or do you start with a clash of opposites and see what happens?

Bess Winter

Usually I start with a key characteristic that serves the story I want to tell, and get that down on the page early. So you could say it’s more a “clash of opposites” than anything, though Val and the narrator aren’t necessarily opposite to each other. Then I build the character around that characteristic, try to add complexity. In the case of this story, and of many stories, I actually have a specific person in mind—often someone I’ve known in the past, but sometimes even film actors or historical figures—who either physically or emotionally resembles the character.

Michael Noll

The story expands in the middle, adding the perspective of a teacher and jumping out of the present action to past incidents. Then, it moves back and forth between these moments and the present action. Is this a structure that you use often? Or is it particular to this story?

Bess Winter

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.

This is a structure I’ve used a few times over the past few years, particularly because “Are You Running Away?” was intended to be part of a triptych. All three of the stories in the triptych were originally going to be structured this way, jumping through time and using this sort of filmic technique, a braided narrative. But it turned out that the third story in the series just didn’t work. Structurally, it wasn’t quite in line with the other two, and the subject matter was actually too close to the bone to make good fiction.

Recently I’ve started to use a similar, but looser, structure to write stories that deal specifically with the movement of objects in time. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a big influence on my thinking about this. He doesn’t quite “braid” in that novel so much as “saddle stitch” or loosely join different narratives at touch-points.

Michael Noll

The event at the heart of this story is astonishingly awful. As you were writing it, did you ever consider pulling back or moving in another direction? Or did you always feel pretty certain where the story was headed?

Bess Winter

In terms of actually hacking open the pipes, I knew the story was going in that direction when I sat down to write; the act, and its implications, was the idea that spurred the story, and was loosely based on an event that happened at my own all-girls school when I attended in the late ’90s-early ’00s. Maybe the story could have veered away from the actual hacking open of the pipe, focused more on the dissolution between friends or something else about their relationship. But, honestly, I was so dead set on writing about the pipe incident that it never occurred to me to go another way.

But, in writing the story, I did struggle—not with how far the event would go, as the natural dramatic shape of the fiction, and its style, seemed to demand the worst thing, but with how the characters would deal with it. There’s a point in the story (when she’s sitting on the grass in the park) where the narrator could have had some sort of epiphany, at least tried to make things right. Irony might demand that she try, and fail, to fix things. But when I sat down to write that section in the park—which was actually an addition—the failed epiphany didn’t feel right. I realized, at that point, this character’s flaw is that she’s a teenager—incredibly self-absorbed, melancholy, selfish and, in some ways, as spoiled and tortured as Val. In fact, she’s not very different from Val, at all, and it felt better for her to become more Val-like than heroic in that moment. That’s not to say Val is a horrible person, either, just a confused person—as many teenage girls are. If anything, this story actually helped me empathize with the sort of girl who used to tease and torture me in high school.

March 2015

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

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