Tag Archives: Kelli Ford

7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn

31 Dec

Every writer must, at some point, come to terms with certain aspects of writing craft. Here are lessons drawn from seven excellent stories featured at Read to Write Stories in 2013.

1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

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Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles and co-fiction editor of BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, and 4’33”.

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford has been a Dobie Paisano Fellow and is finishing a collection of short stories.

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best First Book of Fiction for his short story collection, Shadows of Men.

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now–a period, not an exclamation point–but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection, The Miniature Wife, and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

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Rene Perez is the author of Along These Highways, a story collection that won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation prize.

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti and the forthcoming novel An Untamed State.

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed FruitThe story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

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Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. Great sentences–and great lines of poetry–often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary ReviewNotice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

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An Interview with Kelli Ford

8 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick,” was published in Drunken Boat, and you can read it here.

Kelli Ford was born in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and grew up in North Texas. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and she went on to earn an M.F.A. at George Mason University. She was awarded a 2012-13 Dobie Paisano Fellowship through the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. While a fellow, she put the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories that takes place in Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country and along the banks of the Red River.

In this interview, Ford discusses her process for describing characters, what it means to write about characters from low-income areas, and her solution to the tricky question of how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it.

(To read Kelli’s story “Walking Stick” and an exercise based on her character descriptions, click here.)

Michael Noll

I admire your character descriptions. They’re quick and detailed, moving from the general (old lady) to the idiosyncratic (the fact that the sole of one of her shoes wears faster than the other) in just a few sentences. They’re also nestled within the story, so that the description leads directly into action or thought. How do you approach these descriptions? It can be difficult to fully visualize an invented character, but you make it look so easy.

Kelli Ford

Well, thank you, first of all. To answer this question, which is a nice, concise question about character descriptions, I think I need to take a step back. “Walking Stick” is one of my “origin obsession” stories. Some of us are blessed/cursed with the obsession of our origins and end up coming back again and again. I often think of this as a fault of mine, but try to both stretch myself to invent more and accept it as a gift with as much grace as I can muster.

So this is a roundabout way of answering your wonderful question with a terrible answer: I don’t know. These characters are inspired by my mom, her sisters, my grandmother, and great-grandmother. Of course—and as I always protest to my mom (too much?)—the people in the stories truly do become characters and take on a life of their own. They look ways, say things, and do things as they live on the page that their inspirational, real-life counterparts would never do.

I don’t know where the one worn shoe comes from. I don’t think my great-grandmother always wore out one shoe before the other, but the Anna Maria character does. Why or how? I think this is a character I know very well. It’s one that, perhaps, came easy. When I was writing the story, I didn’t find myself searching around for what she looks like or how she walks.

Other characters, and I’d imagine especially those who are wholly inventions, I have to search for, maybe, what he would wear or how he may respond to a fly crawling across his arm. (Does he wave it away distractedly, smash its guts on his arm, try but fail to Mr. Miyagi it in the air with chopsticks?) In the early pages of a story, descriptions can sometimes be a struggle with a character I am creating, or just beginning to know. I usually find myself more sure of these choices toward the end of the story. So much so, in fact, that maybe things once again begin to feel mysterious and not like choices at all. By the time I’m nearing the end of the story, I have a much better sense of that character, and it’s simply a matter of making sure I let go of early stuff, worked over as it may be, and truly start anew so this knowledge can be incorporated into the early stuff. On a purely nuts and bolts level, for me, that often means retyping each new draft each day so I’m not just tinkering and my subconscious is free to take off. Probably the invented characters require more cutting because I describe and describe trying to get it right, trying to know things for myself.

Michael Noll

This is a story about people who live without a lot of money. There’s a tendency in American fiction to portray these kinds of characters as either ennobled by poverty or as bloodthirsty and devolved. Your story does neither. Even though it’s about an old woman limping down to the tracks to carve up a cow hit by the train, the story never becomes cartoonish or cliched. Is this something you think about in your work?

Kelli Ford

I worry about sentimentality in my work, perhaps because so much comes back to the characters I write. For many of my characters, and especially Anna Maria and Lula, I feel so much for them. I really do. I feel the weight of their choices, the weight of the way the world acts upon them. Sometimes, you come across a character that can make you cry at your keyboard. So maybe the key, a key, is to be honest about them. Shit. We’re all saints and sinners, and poverty, or near-poverty, isn’t ennobling. Do you pay the light bill or buy the school clothes or do both and skip the car payment? Living with those kinds of choices doesn’t make you somehow more dignified than those around you. To write as if it does is dishonest, at best. Poor people are shitty all the time but, perhaps, have less agency to be shitty on a grander scale. If you work to create fully realized characters, and you aren’t setting out to ennoble or bloodthirst-ify a character, then characters are allowed to become either if that’s what the story demands, or rather what the character demands of the story.

Michael Noll

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers.

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers. To read an excerpt about language and identity, click here.

I’m interested in the story’s use of the Cherokee language. In David Treuer’s essay “Smartberries” from his book Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, he criticizes Louise Erdrich for misrepresenting and slighting the Ojibwe language in her novel The Antelope Wife. He claims that she slights the language in choosing mostly nouns when Ojibwe is a verb-based language and in almost always translating the Ojibwe into English. He says this:

“Erdrich adheres to the most popular conventions that govern the use of foreign words in English…the reader is left with sentiments about the Ojibwe language and instances in which Ojibwe functions as an ornament, not as a working part of the novel’s machinery…As with many other Native American novels, the use of lexical nuggets ends up feeling more like display, with language itself a museum piece.”

What are your thoughts about this problem: how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it. In “Walking Stick,” the characters talk to one another in Cherokee, and their words are not translated. You seem to be honoring the integrity of the language. Is this an intentional move?

Kelli Ford

This is a great question! I’ve thought a lot about it, and to be honest, I don’t think I do a good job of “honoring the integrity of the language.” There’s nothing particularly Indian about the story aside from content, the characters and the tiny Oklahoma town they live in. Anna Maria is living in two worlds. She’s seeing her family become more white with each generation. Her daughter has moved in and has her own set of expectations and needs. Their religion is becoming the most important part of their identity. Anna Maria speaks her native language when she sees the Cheaters, and it’s a comfort, almost a sadness.

In “Smartberries,” Treuer says of the Ojibwe in Love Medicine (a book I’m more familiar with), “Strangely, the use of…words—though done seldom—highlights the longing for culture, not its presence” (64). He criticizes not just Erdrich’s mishandling of Ojibwe, but critics’ discussion of her work as particularly Native American in structure, in narrative approach, etc.

Having Anna Maria speak Cherokee is similar, I suppose, to writing her with a limp and one crappy shoe. I don’t think of these choices as “ornamental,” any more than I think having one of Erdrich’s characters speak Ojibwe is ornamental. These choices are integral to the characters as they are written.

That’s not to excuse mishandling the language. Erdrich didn’t grow up speaking the language. Neither did I, though like her I grew up hearing it. So should that preclude me from writing a character who speaks the language? Because Love Medicine is such a powerful and beautiful piece of literature, I say definitely not. (To be clear, I’m not comparing my work to hers—that would be nuts—I’m only comparing the use of language.) Should I work harder to do a better job and make the Cherokee I may happen to use better, more accurate, more complex? For sure. In “Walking Stick,” Anna Maria uses very basic greetings. It was a conscious choice not to translate the language for the most part, but she’s using simple greetings. It wasn’t really a difficult choice, though I suppose I could have taken it a bit further and used the actual Cherokee syllabary, which would have added another level of distance and work for readers who don’t speak the language. As it’s written, not much was a stake, but you know, she’s limited by my own limitations. That’s a real drag. You never want your character to be limited by your own ignorance, but when you are talking about a language, you can’t really sit down in the library for a couple weeks of research and be good.

This story is many years old. I am not sure I would try to use the language now, but you know, I hope I would. I hope I would simply work harder to get it right, to make it better, understanding that I’m going to get some things wrong. For this one, I used memory and books. I called the Cherokee Nation and talked to someone who was a cultural liaison of sorts to get a-do-la-nv-ss-di, but I don’t know if someone would really use this word as a nickname. I sent the story to a cousin to take a look at the language.

Erdrich is continually revising. In The Paris Review interview published a couple of years ago, she says that improving her use of Ojibwe is one reason she’s always revising, even Love Medicine, which is sort of a holy grail for me, as you can probably tell. It’s a great fear of mine that a native speaker will happen across one of my stories, or one of my cousins will follow a Facebook link, and see faults with the language. That simply means I have to work harder if I have another character that needs to speak the language. I don’t want to shy away from a story. I want my allegiance first to be to the character.

Michael Noll

This is an old story, but it was picked up recently by Drunken Boat. What is your process for sending work out? How did this story find its way to publication?

Kelli Ford

Well, I started out, like many of us do, with the Dick Cheney hunting birds process of submission. Send it out everywhere, hope you hit something, anything. But gradually, I think I’ve gotten a bit more focused. It’s hard, though. On a budget you can’t really subscribe to all the magazines and journals you’d like to, despite your best intentions. I find a few contemporary writers doing stuff I like and look at who is accepting their work, get subscriptions where I can, and send a story into the slush-ether with fingers crossed. If a writer I like edits a magazine, I send something there. I always have my dream magazines like The Southern Review or Oxford American.

This publication came about because Drunken Boat had a Native issue a while back. I submitted something that wasn’t quite right but got a nice note back that essentially said no really, send us something again and do it quickly! So I did. Even so, there was a new fiction editor in place by the time I sent “Walking Stick.” So that’s a small bit of advice to students and folks early in the process of submissions. When you get those nice rejections, act quickly. Send something else if you think you have something better suited for the magazine. Editors move on, and if one asks for more work, I think he or she generally really means it.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Describe A Character

6 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick" appeared in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick” appeared in Drunken Boat. She recently served as the fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch near Austin, where she worked on finishing a story collection, Crooked Hallelujah.

When people call Anton Chekhov the greatest short story writer, they often talk about how quickly he develops characters. In “The Lady with the Dog,” for instance, he sums up a gentleman in Moscow this way: After the main character reveals the tiniest bit of his feelings about a woman to a friend at a dinner club, the friend says, “You were quite right, you know—the sturgeon was just a leetle off.” An entire social dynamic is revealed in those few words.

The best character descriptions do more than only show the reader a character. They reveal something about the way the world works or the way a character interacts with that world. Kelli Ford writes those kind of descriptions. To see how she does it, check out her story “Walking Stick.” You can read it now at Drunken Boat.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Kelli Ford describes one character:

“At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through.”

We learn not only that Anna Maria is poor and old, that she’s overweight with a limp, and that she lives in a place with gravel roads. But we also learn about how she faces a world that isn’t easy for a poor, old, overweight woman with a limp. We understand her mentality through the simple, matter of fact description of the shoes and the fact that she can feel the gravel. One of the most important words in the passage is always. Thin shoes and poky gravel are facts of Anna Maria’s existence, and she does not complain. A lesser writer would call her stoic, but a description like this one, because it shows us the character so thoroughly, makes us believe that she exists.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character, using Kelli Ford’s description of Anna Maria as a model:

  1. Start with the character’s age: “At — years old, So-and-so did (did not) _______.”
  2. Describe the character in terms of how he/she has always been: “He was still ______”
  3. But then add a recent change: “But (some new thing) made her ______.”
  4. Describe the affect this change has on the character: “As a result…”
  5. Describe the world from the character’s POV. Given the recent change, how does the character see the world? What does the character notice or do?

The idea is to move beyond basic physicality or mentality (short, tall, skinny, fat, smart, dumb, happy, sad) to a sense of interaction with the world. This means creating pressure on both sides: the pressure the world applies to the character and the way the character pushes back.

Good luck and have f un.

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