Tag Archives: Kelly Luce

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 Kelly Luce

2 May
Kelly Luce's debut collection of stories will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Kelly Luce’s debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Not many writer biographies can go toe-to-toe with the condensed history of Kelly Luce: She once attended a fiction seminar in Bulgaria, she was the writer-in-residence at the house where Jack Kerouac lived while writing Dharma Bums, and her forthcoming collection of stories has the knockout title Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail.

In this interview, Luce discusses first sentences, the challenge of finding the right publisher, and books that make her say, “Oh! Oohhhhh!”

Michael Noll

The story has a perfect first sentence: simple, yet absolutely essential to the story. It accomplishes in seven words what some writers spend paragraphs doing: creating and then breaking a routine in order to find where the story begins. What was your approach to writing this opening?

Kelly Luce

It’s funny; when I read this question I thought about the first sentence (“Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself.”) and felt sure that it had been there since the start, from draft one. It seems like such an obvious opening. Maybe too obvious, you know? Then I dug up my early drafts. After having a drink to brace myself, I was able to face them…and I discovered that that line didn’t show up until draft 7. I don’t remember what the process was like that brought me to write it. Maybe this is a testament to how hard it is to put into words what is simple and true.

Michael Noll

Very early in the story, this paragraph appears:

“Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.”

I love this paragraph because of its speed. The distance between “two people are in trouble” and “the wrong one dies” is vast—an entire story lies in between—and yet the paragraph doesn’t bother with any of that. It keeps rushing along, moving from the comedy (in the Shakespearean sense) of “cosmic mix-up” to the tragedy of “they all live sadly ever after.” Is this speed something you purposefully strive and revise for, or is it present in the earliest drafts?

Kelly Luce

Thank you. Though this paragraph also came fairly late in the drafting process, after I decided to try introducing the cover-story subplot, it came out fully formed in one of those rare moments when the writing goes on auto-pilot for a few lines. Rhythm and sound is one of my favorite things about writing, the way syllables and commas pile up and suddenly stop, the way long sentences full of short words interact with short ones made of long words, the interplay between vowels and consonants, the way internal rhyme can create gravity. It becomes very physical. So I feel like the answer to your question is, both: I strive and revise for appropriate rhythm, and sometimes it happens in draft one; other times the conditions aren’t right for it to show up until draft ten.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, the term “magical realism” was popular, mostly due to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. There weren’t a lot of American writers working in that style, and some critics wondered if it was possible to use it in this country. Yet here we are a few years later, and the most influential American short story writers are Aimee Bender and George Saunders, whose absurdist, fantastical stories are perhaps an American adaptation of magical realism. Your writing also seems to fall into this category, so I’m curious how you would explain its appeal. How did the American short story move from the dirty realism of Raymond Carver to the contemporary mixture of fantasy/comic-book/genre/absurdist/supernatural elements?

Kelly Luce

I’d love to know more about this, myself. I have no idea why the American short story has moved beyond Carver’s realism, other than to say that things always change, and what’s fashionable in one era is sort of inevitably not in the next. I mean, what made Carver who he was as a writer (other than Gordon Lish)? What was he shifting away from? That might help us figure out why we’ve moved on from his example, at least somewhat. It could be that this generation of writers and readers is reacting to that generation, looking for something different, or at least being willing to consider something different. Certainly other countries have not suffered as much (I consider it a suffering) from a dearth of imaginative/non-realistic writing during this time. What was it about America, specifically, that made realism the desired form of expression during that time?
Still, from what I’ve read of lit mags and recently released collections, as well as at workshops I’ve participated in during recent years, I’d say the dirty realist story still has quite a following. Maybe, with the advent of online publishing, magazines have been able to take a few more chances on what they publish, so there’s both more supply and demand of the weirder stuff. Or maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.
We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so. Or maybe like me, they read Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Pastoralia and went, Oh! Oohhhhh!
Michael Noll

You’re a really talented writer with an enviable body of work—stories in reputable journals, prestigious fellowships. Your debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October, and reviewers will almost certainly compare the writing to that of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, two highly regarded and popular writers.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

As a result, your book seems like it would be awfully desirable from a publisher’s perspective.

Yet when readers open it, they won’t find the name of a major, New York-based publisher. Instead, they’ll see the name of a new independent press based in Austin—A Strange Object. Can you write a little about how this relationship with A Strange Object came about? What makes A Strange Object a great partner for your collection?

Kelly Luce

Will you marry me? Or can I pay you to come over every day and tell me nice things?

The relationship with A Strange Object started a few years ago, when Jill Meyers was editor of American Short Fiction and accepted a short-short of mine for a series on their website. That’s how I met her and Callie Collins, who worked at ASF as well. When they started A Strange Object, I was one of the writers they contacted about submitting a MS.

I always had a sense that I wanted this book to go to an indie press, and that my novel, which I’ve been at for a few years, would be the New York book. Maybe it’s because I heard so many rumors about story collections being treated like redheaded step-kids by the big house publishers, or maybe it’s because I never had the guts to push my agent, who represented my novel, to do anything with the stories. A\SO is the place for this book, absolutely. They get the strangeness, they love things about it I’d forgotten, and through editing they’ve made it a way better book than it was when I submitted it to them. The design is gorgeous, smart, clean. The cover artist is incredible. When you’re working with a small press, you’re pressed right up against the taste of the people who run it. And these guys are like…I don’t know. They’re not like anybody, which is the point. I have a crush on them.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Short, Direct, and with Style

30 Apr
Kelly Luce Exercise

Kelly Luce’s story “Rooey” was first published by The Literary ReviewIt will also appear in her forthcoming collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

I’ve heard it claimed that you can teach writers plot, structure, and character, but you can’t teach them to write well, with style. As evidence, look at Vladimir Nabokov. His unpredictable sentences flash between subjects (picnic, lightning) at the wild speed of genius. They are impossible to imitate, I’ve heard. But I don’t believe it, if only because there are so many great writers crafting astounding sentences.

One of them is Kelly Luce. Her story, “Rooey,” was first published in The Literary Review, and you can read it here.

How the Story Works

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. Keep this in mind as you read the first paragraph of Kelly Luce’s story:

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.

The leaps of logic begin in the first sentence. The comma acts as a pivot point. Death we understand, but what does it mean to not be yourself? The first two examples (foods, humor) make sense within our common understanding of grief, but the third (“I’ve stopped wearing a bra”) is strange by almost any measure. The leaps continue: dead brother to cheap labor. By the end of the paragraph, we’ve moved from death and identity crisis to newspaper publishing standards.

The speed of those leaps is what gives the story its style. The sentences are not long or grammatically complex. They do not suggest but, rather, state things outright. Very often, beginning writers believe that good sentences are overwritten and overly subtle. The truth is usually quite the opposite. If you don’t believe me, here is part of the first page of Nabokov’s Lolita.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.

Though Nabokov is known for his “poetic” style, the sentences are short, direct, and to the point. Their beauty is in the phrasing and the speed at which they move from “four feet ten in one sock” to loving “a certain initial girl-child.” That is fictional style.

The Writing Exercise

To be stylish, you need to know what your story is about. If you don’t know, then your sentences won’t know, either. If that makes you despair, don’t. The search for a story’s about-ness is often also a search for its style. Let’s start searching. We’ll write two paragraphs:

  1. Who is your story about? Why is the story about him or her or them? To answer the first question, begin by describing the person as plainly and directly as possible. Keep the second question in mind. Make it your goal to answer it by the end of the paragraph. So, you’ll likely move from literal description to a statement of causation: Because of her, I… or If it hadn’t been for him, she… (For a model, look at the example from Lolita.)
  2. What event is at the heart of your story? What are the implications or ramifications of that event? What is the story about? To answer the first question, state what happened (Since Rooey died… or When Billy got married…). Then, move onto the ramifications. What happened next? How did this event ripple forward into time? Make it your goal to answer the final question (what the story is about) by the end of the paragraph. So, you’ll move from what happened to why we’re reading the story. (For a model, look at the example from “Rooey.”)

Have fun!

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