Tag Archives: Joe Lansdale

4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?

 

Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?

 

Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.

 

Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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An Interview with Steph Post

4 Dec
Steph Post's crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post’s crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post grew up in North Florida, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and six dogs, and teaches writing at a performing arts high school in Tampa. Her essay, “Blue Diamond,” on the early work of Stephen King was included in the recent anthology, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Her latest book is the crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked.

To read an excerpt from A Tree Born Crooked and an exercise on writing active character descriptions, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses writing about making the Florida panhandle feel authentic, creating intimate spaces within plot, and working under the influence of Cormac McCarthy.

Michael Noll

This book seems to be as much about its setting in the Florida panhandle as the actual story. On one hand, this seems like a good move as a storyteller since it’s a place full of colorful characters. On the other hand, I’d imagine it could be hard to create characters in this place without running into stereotypes. How did you create this place in a way included drugs, alligators, and poor, uneducated white people without falling into the caricatures so often connected with popular images of those things?

Steph Post

I honestly didn’t even think about the stereotype issue until I was deep into the revision process. I just created a place and a set of characters that were real and true to the people of this area of Florida. Although Crystal Springs is a fictional town, I wanted it to feel authentic for the reader. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were watching a movie or television show with a caricature of a rural Florida town, populated with rednecks and white trash. I mean, how many times has this been done? I wanted readers to feel like they could imagine walking around the town as if it were an actual place. I wanted them to feel all of the hopes, dreams, despairs and complexities of these characters. Just as all people are complex, so to are all characters. It’s the job of the writer not to be lazy when bringing the characters to light.

Michael Noll

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

I’m interested in how you approached plot in the novel. The book starts with James getting a postcard telling him to come home because his father has died. But the plot doesn’t really begin until his brother and cousin commit a crime. How did you bridge the gap between James showing up in town and his getting drawn into the crime? It would seem tempting to make that gap quite large, with James meeting various characters and visiting old haunts. Was it difficult to get the next part of the plot moving?

Steph Post

I won’t lie—developing the plot was the hardest part of writing A Tree Born Crooked. I’m on my third novel now and crafting plot has become a much more fluid process, but it was a bit difficult for me with A Tree Born Crooked. It was tempting to let James play in Crystal Springs a while and to bring out new characters and places, but I wanted to keep the pace accelerated throughout the novel. There’s a definite balance between pushing the action forward and then allowing for pauses where readers can become more intimate with the setting and characters. I had to establish James and his inner conflict before I could focus on the external conflicts of the plot, and from there I had to make sure there were enough peaks and valleys between the two.

Michael Noll

Crime novels tend to have a particular kind of main character, one who has, as your book jacket puts it, “a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside.” But, of course, book jackets are not novels. How did you create a character who fulfills the description in the jacket (and the readers’ expectations for a crime novel) but is also a nuanced character with depth?

Steph Post

I was much more concerned with creating a character with depth. It wasn’t until after the novel was finished that I realized James fit into the role of anti-hero in a crime novel. And, of course, that came from the subliminal effects of researching and writing in this genre. As I was writing, I was focused on developing James as a character who is having to come to terms with events outside of his control. He’s thrust back into a world that he wants no part of and he must decide how he wants to navigate the situation. James’ story is really one of a character peeling, or a times ripping, back layers in a difficult process of self-discovery. He just also happens to be dodging bullets in the process.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs for the novel, you’re compared to Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews. I’d add another writer: Joe Lansdale, the crime and horror writer from East Texas. I’m curious which writers were in your head as your wrote this novel. Was there a book that you looked to for help? What did you learn or borrow?

Steph Post

A lot of books were influential in getting A Tree Born Crooked started. Novels such as Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and David Eddings’ High Hunt definitely inspired me to write about underdog characters in an underbelly world. I fully fall prey to Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” though, and so try to avoid reading fiction when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. However, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was crucial in helping me to craft dialogue. There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel with Llewellyn sitting in his trailer—what the character doesn’t say is almost more important than what he puts into words. I definitely relied on McCarthy when working to create “negative dialogue” and to utilize the spaces in a scene to their fullest.

December 2014

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

An Interview with Joe Lansdale

5 Sep
Joe Landale is the author of many novels and stories, including the Hap and Leonard mystery novels and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep. His latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10.

Joe Landale latest novel The Thicket will be released on September 10. If you’re in Austin, you can see Lansdale in person at BookPeople on September 12.

Joe Lansdale is one of the most versatile and peculiar writers in American literature. He’s written a popular mystery series (Hap and Leonard) whose detectives are a white East Texas rose picker who spent time in prison as a conscientious objector and his best friend, a gay, black veteran. Lansdale has won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association eight times. He’s also written for comic books, television, and movies, and his work has been turned into the films Bubba Ho-Tep (which, if you haven’t seen it, you need to watch tonight) and, coming soon, Cold in July. His latest novel is The Thicket, a suspense novel set in The Big Thicket in East Texas. If you live in Austin, you can see him read from the book in person on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at BookPeople.

In this interview, Lansdale discusses voice, writing “historical” fiction, and what it means to write about East Texas.

(To read an excerpt from Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket and an exercise on voice and first sentences, click here.)

Michael Noll

The first sentence of the novel lists all the things that will happen in the story. I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers try something similar, and the sentences rarely work because they feel manipulative, like the language is trying too hard to get my attention. But this sentence is wonderful. It’s such an absurd list of events, and they’re related so matter-of-factly. How did you approach this sentence?

Joe Lansdale

I’m not overly conscious of it and mostly just try to write something from the subconcious where the story is hidden. But the subconscious mind knows, and I let it be my guide.

Michael Noll

I’m from rural Kansas, where people, especially old farmers, tend to have a colorful way of talking. My siblings and I actually play a game, trying to think of all the crazy lines we’ve heard our dad or grandfather say. So, that’s why I love this line from your novel: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” That’s maybe the funniest thing I’ve read in a novel in a long time. I’m curious if you made that line up, or if it’s something you’ve heard. In general, you’re so good at writing that rural voice. How much work does it take to maintain it for an entire novel?

Joe Lansdale

It’s a saying I heard growing up. People here, especially generations previous, spoke that way naturally. I’m very comparison-oriented as a writer and speaker. I pay attention even when I don’t know I am. I absorb more than I collect.

Michael Noll

The novel is set one hundred years ago–which seems like a risky move as a writer. So many books set in the past are stifling to read. The characters don’t seem like fresh creations, or the writers try to mimic an old-fashioned way of talking. How did you avoid those problems? At one point, I forgot the time period and thought I was reading something set in the present.

Joe Lansdale

I tried to capture the period without it capturing me. I did allow an old style of speaking to seep in, but I never let it own the story. Shorty has a very stylized way of speaking, and even his contemporaries find it odd.

Michael Noll

You’re a Texas writer–born in Texas, live there, and set many of your books there. As a literary setting, Texas often gets used as a platform for big, sweeping sagas about America. Your work doesn’t really do that, though. It’s funny, where often those books aren’t, and the characters are intensely idiosyncratic, rather than symbols for some larger idea–even though, as in the case of The Thicket, the story is set at a time of significant change. Is this because you write about East Texas, which lacks some of the mythic quality of the Old West and West Texas? Or does it have to do with your conception of how to tell a story? What do you think?

Joe Lansdale

I think East Texas is mythic, but more in an Old South way, mixed with some Western, and cajun, black, and more recently, Hispanic culture. I write out of the mythic and tall tale tradition, actually. Love it. Greek myths are a big part of my background.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Create Your Narrator’s Voice

3 Sep
Joe Lansdale's new novel The Thicket is about X. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

Joe R. Lansdale’s new novel The Thicket follows a band of unlikely heroes on an adventure in turn-of-the-century East Texas. You can read a free excerpt on Facebook.

No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?

One writer who consistently creates compelling narrators is Joe R. Lansdale. His new novel, The Thicket (to be released September 10) is set in East Texas at the turn of the century and narrated in a voice that catches your eye before the first sentence is over. The writer Ron Carlson said that The Thicket is “told in a voice so alluring and deadpan that it makes you smile and then look around to see who saw you smile.” You can read a preview of the first chapter here.

How the Story Works

First sentences are notoriously difficult to write. Stephen King recently claimed that he cannot write a novel until he’s gotten the first sentence right, and that sometimes doing so takes years. So it’s interesting to see how Lansdale approaches the first sentence of his novel. Notice how quickly he establishes the narrator’s voice:

“I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”

In that sentence, Lansdale falls back on a tried-and-true strategy. If you don’t know how to start a story, just tell the reader what will happen. It may sound simplistic, but this face-value approach is key to establishing the narrator’s voice for two reasons:

  1. We learn that the narrator is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He’s not going to play around with us. If you’re trying to develop a character, it’s useful to have a couple of hard-and-fast personality traits to rely upon.
  2. Because the statement is so factual, Lansdale has the luxury of playing with the words. He doesn’t have to worry about finding something interesting to say; he just needs to let the narrator find an interesting way to say a basic thing. This is exactly the strategy used here by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (notice how it’s stating basic information):

“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.”

A final point to consider: It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that great voices are highly elaborate or deeply folksy, but the phrasings that make them memorable are often subtle. Lansdale’s three-part phrase “gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog” simply adds a few eye-catching adjectives. (This is another reason you shouldn’t abide by all “rules for writers.” Adjectives, when used well, can make a story sparkle.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a voice, using Joe Lansdale’s The Thicket as a model:

  1. Using a story you’ve been working on, write a new first sentence(s). State outright, in the first person, what will happen. Use your plainest language. You’re giving yourself a frame to hang the narration on.
  2. Think about your narrator. Would he or she make such a up-front statement? If not, what parts would the narrator want to hide or soften? How would the simple statements be rephrased in order to make the narrator more comfortable? Make those changes.
  3. If the narrator had a captive audience, how would he/she change the remaining phrases in order to make them more interesting? In other words, what is the narrator’s storytelling voice? Because that is what narrators are doing: telling a story. Pick two or three words or phrases and make some simple changes: add adjectives, replace nouns with different nouns, or cut words to create surprising juxtapositions (“true love and kill someone”).

Play with your sentence(s) and see what you get. If you’re having fun, it’s a good sign.

Good luck.

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