Tag Archives: Julie Wernersbach

An Interview with Julie Wernersbach

1 Sep
Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swi

Julie Wernersbach is the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival and the author of two books of nonfiction, including the forthcoming Swimming Holes of Texas.

Julie Wernersbach serves as the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. She has ten years of experience as an independent bookseller, most recently serving as marketing director for BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas and one of the most high-profile independent bookstores in the country. Before moving to Austin in 2011, Julie served as publicist and events coordinator for Book Revue, a large independent bookstore on Long Island. Julie is the author of the books Vegan Survival Guide to Austin and Swimming Holes of Texas (due out from University of Texas Press in 2017). Her short story, “Happiness” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia magazine.

To read an exercise on creating conflict in multiple point of view narratives based on Wernersbach’s story “Happiness,” click here.

In this interview, Wernersbach discusses finding the beginning of characters’ story arcs, moving back and forth between those arcs, and the tension that’s created in each moment of the story.

Michael Noll

The story follows three characters over the course of one day. Their storylines eventually intersect, of course, and that’s part of what we’re reading for. That said, one of the challenges of such a story is figuring out where to begin. Not all of the characters’ arcs can begin with a bang. How did you figure out where to begin each characters’ story?

Julie Wernersbach

The story began inside Leslie’s head. I saw a manicured house from the perspective of a woman preparing to leave for an appointment. I knew she wasn’t having a great day and that she was overall anxious and unhappy. Once I had her unhappiness pinned to two other people, I wanted to know what they were doing at that same exact moment. I can’t remember if I specify the day of the week in this story, but it definitely feels like a Tuesday. I figure, for the most part, Tuesday afternoons don’t typically have a whole lot of bang to them. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re generally miserable or obsessed about something, the misery and obsession are going to be humming along without a whole lot of deep distraction on a Tuesday afternoon. So I just sort of jumped into where her husband and sister might be in those cases on an average afternoon and went from there.

Michael Noll

The story moves quickly from character to character, never staying with one for more than a few paragraphs. Did you write the story with that structure, or did you write longer sections and then break them into smaller pieces?

Julie Wernersbach

Julie Wernersbach's story, "Happiness," appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Once I understood that the entire story wasn’t going to be told from Leslie’s perspective, I did write it with that structure. In the end, I actually went back and expanded sections. As a reader, I really like short hops from one character to another, whether those hops come in brief chapters in a novel or paragraphs in a story. As a writer, it was energizing to make brisk moves between the characters. It took some of the pressure off of figuring out exactly who they were and what the story needed to be, as I wrote. I could write a little bit, move on and have that character in the back of mind, developing as I wrote the next bit of someone else’s storyline, and then come back to him or her and do more.

Michael Noll

One of the cool things about the story is that, from a wide-lens view, not a great deal happens, yet in each section something occurs: slight but important moments concerning a package, a diet, a visit to the doctor. What was your approach to plot and action in the story?

Julie Wernersbach

It’s funny that Arcadia paired this story on their site with an image of potato chips, because I thought about the structure a bit that way. I wanted to make sure the reader couldn’t eat just one paragraph. I wanted a small hook in each section, a little something to keep each character intriguing and propel the reader forward. To me, the hook was (and probably always is) the small moments that string together a life. Those slight moments of discomfort and dissatisfaction add up to a lot, building pressure and tension little by little. I felt the action had to be incremental for Leslie to blow up in a believable way. Death by a thousand paper cuts! So to speak.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent your career around books and writers. You’re the Literary Director at the Texas Book Festival, and previously you were the marketing director at BookPeople. Great writing can inspire people to write, but it can also discourage them—make them think, “I’ll never write something that good.” How does your reading inform your writing?

Julie Wernersbach

There were definitely many years of believing that what I did was outside of the books I read and the authors I hosted; that those works and writers were legitimate and my work and identity as a writer never would be. But the thing about being exposed to so many books is that you’re exposed to so many books, good and bad, memorable and forgettable. It’s been reassuring to comprehend the volume of what’s published any given week and to acknowledge the multi-faceted reasons behind a publisher’s decision to put a work in print.

It’s also been heartening and reassuring to stand on the sidelines of hundreds (more than one thousand? probably more than one thousand) audience Q&As with authors. There’s always a process question and some version of a “what’s it like to be a writer” question. In addition to picking up a ton of great writing advice, I’ve also learned that virtually every author struggles to feel valid and successful, and that the authors who do have a strong sense of security in their work have one thing in common: they write their asses off. If I’ve felt inferior in the presence of phenomenal books and authors, it’s only stoked the fire to write my ass off. (And to read more really, really good books.)

September 2016

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

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How to Introduce Conflict in Multiple POV Stories

30 Aug
Julie Wernersbach's story, "Happiness," appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness,” appears in the latest issue of Arcadia.

We’re all familiar with novels that are told through multiple points of view. The challenge for the writer is not only moving between the points of view but also figuring out where to start each one. Unless you’re writing about an event (a terrorist attack, a wedding, a blizzard) experienced simultaneously by all of your characters, there’s a good chance that a great place to begin one character’s story (April 3, let’s say) is a great place to begin every character’s story. And yet that’s what multiple POV novels require. The same is true of multiple POV stories, except that the challenge is, in some ways, even greater.

A great place to study how to begin different narrative arcs in a multiple POV story or novel is Julie Wernersbach’s story, “Happiness.” It’s included in the newest issue of Arcadia, where you can read it here.

How the Story Works

The story follows three characters on a particularly dramatic day in their lives. Each character encounters a conflict, but the conflicts don’t follow similar arcs. For example, we don’t learn the actual nature of Leslie’s conflict until fairly late in the story, whereas we learn about the other conflicts pretty quickly. This is important to keep in mind. Just because a story or novel contains different points of views doesn’t mean that each one must start with a bang and follow a quick-rising dramatic arc.

So, how does Wernersbach set up her conflicts?

One begins with internal conflict, the sort that a character’s mind chews on over and over:

And why should it be unforgivable, Leslie’s happiness? Her sister was never happy with Lewis anyway. Joanne complained about his ear wax and the hair on his back that he asked her to shave and the tremendous farts he felt entitled to release in bed; complaints which Leslie understands, sure, now that she’s been with Lewis for ten years—but when you love a person there are certain things you overlook until even the hard-to-look-at things become endearing.

At this point, we’re not sure what Leslie’s story is about, but we’ve glimpsed her internal turmoil: the issue that she keeps working over in her head.

Another character’s arc begins with a direct conflict with another person that creates an internal conflict within a character:

Across town, on the third floor of a six-floor building in a sprawling office park, Lewis sits at his desk struggling to articulate his dissatisfaction to a sales rep over a recent shipment. The product arrived late and was damaged. Customer service blamed UPS but the receiving department talked at length with their UPS guy, a man with the jocular personality and off-color jokes of someone who never stays in one place too long, and apparently all shipments coming out of GenTech warehouses are showing up in boxes that look like they’ve been through World War II. This is unacceptable, he types, and deletes the phrase and begins again.

In this case, the conflict is Ye Old Man Versus Man: Lewis against customer service. But the fact that he deletes the phrase suggests that he isn’t sure how to proceed, which sets off the internal conflict.

The last character’s arc begins with an internal conflict that takes place in a public place, and the drama comes from the way the public responds to this internal, private issue:

Joanne walks into a grocery store with a shopping list.

Six pounds of cabbage and three stalks of lacinato kale. One white onion. Four cucumbers—no, five—because cucumbers are a free food. Ditto celery. You burn their calories just by chewing. The smoothie recipe said kale or spinach and she goes for the kale because it feels exotic and also more serious. She’s forging new territory here. A diet that is not a diet, that is a whole new way of life. A holistic approach, the doctor advised. Not a litany of restrictions but a hymn of possibilities. Kale! Cucumbers! Cabbage! Celery! She lays each vegetable on the conveyor belt. The cashier looks at her and thinks the same thing every cashier thinks when Joanne stocks up for a new diet: Good for you.

We’re not yet sure where Joanne’s story is headed, but we can feel the tension between what she’s trying to do and the way it’s perceived by others.

None of these ways of kicking off a character arc is better than the others. They’re merely different—and that’s the point. When character arcs begin to follow the same pattern, the reader is likely to get bored and skim ahead, and, generally, skimming is the first step to walking away from a story. Keeping the reader engaged means mixing up your strategies, as Wernersbach does in “Happiness.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try different strategies for setting up character arcs, using “Happiness” by Julie Wernersbach as a model:

  1. Begin with an issue that a character can’t stop thinking about. In “Happiness,” Leslie can’t stop thinking about her happiness and how it relates to her husband and sister. She is rationalizing it, justifying her as-yet-unknown actions to herself. Rationalization and justification are almost always great places to begin a story because they suggest that a character isn’t comfortable with her behavior. So, what does your character feel the need to justify or rationalize? When does your character become defensive and say/think things like “Sure, but…?”
  2. Begin with a conflict with another person that causes self-doubt. The truth is, we don’t intrinsically care about the package from UPS—unless that package contains a bomb or a body part. What’s important is the effect the package has on Lewis. If it matters to Lewis, then it matters to us. It matters even more when Lewis isn’t sure how to proceed. We naturally wonder, “What will he do?” So, introduce a conflict (as large as a bomb or as small as a dented package) that makes your character deliberate—that causes your character to decide on an action and then revise that decision.
  3. Begin by introducing a distance between a character’s internal conflict and the way it’s perceived by others. Joanne has decided to change her diet, to eat healthier. It’s something that people decide to do and succeed and fail at every day. That success or failure is not what makes the conflict interesting. Instead, it’s the way that conflict is viewed by others—because those other people’s opinions matter to Joanne. She is aware of them, and they shape her own sense of her conflict. So, don’t let your character confront a conflict in isolation. Try putting the character in some public place (a store, a home, a dinner table, a school, work) and see what reaction her internal struggle gets from the people around her. How does that shape her sense of the stakes?

The goal is to keep readers on their toes by introducing character arcs in different ways.

Good luck.

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