Tag Archives: Narrative Pace

How to Stretch Present Action

12 Jul
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the novel’s first paragraph, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

How to Set Up Dialogue with Declarative Statements

28 Jun
Robert Boswell's story, "The House on Bony Lake," appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

The best writers have a way of making their prose seem light and effortless. It’s the effect we’re all seeking because in our minds, the story races along, but on the page, it too often plods along, one thing after another. The place where that slow, predictable, stuck feeling tends to reveal itself the clearest in our drafts is in dialogue. Conversely, in a great piece of writing, the dialogue snaps.

A great example of light and fast dialogue and prose can be found in Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake.” It was published in Harper’s Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A passage early in the story begins like this: “Lew’s All Nite was a dark tavern attractive to serious drinkers.” The paragraph ends with “The All Nite was not a place for optimists.”

Now, look at the dialogue that follows:

“Hey, genius,” a regular called, a woman in her late thirties named Kay Timmons, a gin drinker, who liked to talk, who needed his attention, who would tip him a twenty on a thirty-dollar tab. “If you’re so smart, why’s my glass empty?”

Paul responded immediately, “Nobody thinks I’m smart but you.”

“I’m putting all my eggs in that basket,” Kay told him. “Be kind to my eggs.”

The dialogue (why’s my glass empty, nobody thinks I’m smart but you, all my eggs in that basket) illustrates the claims made in the declarative statements at the beginning of the passage (serious drinkers, not a place for optimists).

The same thing happens throughout the passage. Here is another example of declarative statements:

Melinda wore the shortest skirts of any waitress. The men in All Nite studied her hungrily. From the first hour of her first shift Paul had the feeling they would wind up in bed together.

Of course, they have sex, and afterward “He remembered thinking that she’d cast a longing look at her crossword.” He notices a rectangle-shaped tattoo, and here is the dialogue that follows:

“It’s Colorado,” she said, “my home state.”

“You’re from Ohio.”

“It’s a book, then.”

“It’s not a book.”

“It might be a book. I read.”

“Looks more like a television.”

“All right, then,” she’d said. “Are we done?”

Again, the dialogue illustrates what we can infer from what we’ve already been told: she’s something less than smitten with him.

Finally, in the same passage, we learn the history of the building where Lew’s All Night is located. At one point, it housed “a storefront church — the Holy Committee of Righteous Christ — whose floppy-haired minister plastered flyers of his face all over town, declaring himself god’s delivery system. He played electric flute and drum machine during hymns. Paul met him once, in a bar on the north end of the lake.”

At this point, it’s interesting to consider what dialogue might follow. How will it confirm what we already know? There are a few possibilities. This is the path it takes:

“You recognize me, don’t you?” the preacher asked as he slid a creased five into the tight filament of a stripper’s thong. “You’ve seen my posters,” he insisted.

It’s as if the story is saying to the reader, you just met the preacher and you’re suspicious of him–and, turns out, your suspicions are correct.

What Boswell has done is write a passage that contains dialogue from four different characters who aren’t talking together. It leaps from one thing to another so smoothly that it’s possible to read the passage without noticing how much time and space it covers. This may sound complicated, but it’s similar to how many of us talk. We make declarative statements all the time, followed by a piece of evidence to substantiate our claim. This is especially true of the preachers in our lives. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people have heard someone talk about So-and-so from the Such-and-such church and then add, “And do you know where I saw him? In a ____, with a ___.” The blanks are not positive, and we knew that before they even arrived in the conversation.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use declarative statements to set up dialogue, using Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” as a model:

  1. Set your scene in a particular place with particular individuals. Stories and novels can, of course, make general statements (Tolstoy made a lot of hay with his statement about happy and unhappy families in Anna Karenina), but it’s easier to work with specific details. Where is this passage from your story/novel taking place or referring to?
  2. Choose a particular voice. This might mean that the statement will come from a character (who may or may not be the narrator) or the narrator or some other voice you’ve concocted. It doesn’t matter who you pick, but you must pick. The voice needs attitude. When Boswell’s story states, “It was not a place for optimists,” that’s not a neutral statement. It has attitude. There are, probably, characters who would disagree with that assessment of the bar. What is your voice’s attitude on the subject you laid out in the first step?
  3. Make a statement. Let the voice you’ve chosen hold forth. Imagine that the voice is being interviewed by Terry Gross, host of the NPR show “Fresh Air.” She’s asking your voice about the places and people in its life. What does it have to say now that it’s suddenly an expert?
  4. Illustrate the statement with dialogue. You can use the scaffolding of real-life conversations to comment on the people and places within the statement: “And you know what he/she said then?” or “You’ll never guess what So-and-so did the other day” or “Case in point: ____.” You’ll likely end up cutting this scaffolding and moving directly from the statement to the dialogue.

We question dialogue when we don’t know where it’s going, when we have no sense that it knows where it’s going. So, give it a sense of direction: it’s moving toward the statement you’ve already given us. The goal is to make dialogue snap by divorcing it from plot and attaching it, instead, to statements about people and place. If you can do this once, you can do it again and again, often with different subjects within the same passage.

Good luck.

An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

14 Apr
Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called “rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places” and also “thoughtful and well considered.”

Manuel Gonzales is the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.

To read an exercise on building character within action scenes based on Gonzales’ new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, click here.

In this interview, Gonzales discusses moving from stories to a novel, writing novel sections out of order, and moving through time within a narrative.

Michael Noll

This novel contains so much of what you did in The Miniature Wife. There’s the wry, corporate in-house documentary tone that was in “Farewell, Africa,” the genre sensibility of stories like “All of Me” and “Wolf,” and the sense of tense waiting that was in “Pilot, Copilot, Writer.” This is one of the concerns that story writers have–how will my voice and style translate to the length and form of the novel? How did you approach that jump? Did you always know the sort of novel that you wanted to write? Or were there abandoned projects and starts before settling on The Regional Office Is Under Attack!?

Manuel Gonzales

I didn’t always know the kind of novel I wanted to write next. The stories—they came out over ten or eleven years, and for a long stretch the stories, as a book, had been abandoned and I was working on two different novels, neither of which came to light, for good reason. And to be honest, the in-house documentary tone didn’t arrive in this novel till the very end of rewriting it. What happened was I had an image in my head of a man trying to grab a woman out of a detention center—La Femme Nikita-style—to turn her into a trained assassin of sorts, and she stomps his foot and makes a break for it—but when I wrote that, I didn’t know what was going to happen, where this was headed. For a long time, the early drafts contained long-ish, self-contained sections that, in hindsight, read very much like their own short stories, and I think that’s what got me through early drafts—I wrote it as if it were nothing more than longish short stories that followed the same action but contained their own mini-arcs.

Michael Noll

The novel starts with the weirdness of the place and world—a description of the Regional Office. Then, we briefly meet Rose as she is preparing to attack the Office. And then we’re given some backstory about her, and that backstory seems to have a different voice than the previous two chapters: it’s still funny and sharp, but it also wouldn’t be out of place in a completely realistic novel. Is this simply the voice that arrived on the page when you wrote her character? Or were you consciously trying to ground the novel’s fantastic world with a recognizable voice?

Manuel Gonzales

That backstory might have a slightly different feel, especially early on, because it was written early in the process and part of the writing was exploration—who is Rose, what does she sound like, how does she move—and the moment of her waiting to start the attack was written at the end, after I decided the whole book needed an overhaul, a new kind of beginning. And by that time I had a clearer idea of Rose, of her sense of humor, of her bravado propped up by her foul mouth and disaffected youth. What’s nice, too, though, is that in that section of attack, she’s older and has a different sense of her self, even. She’s been through the recruitment and training and has more bravado because of it—even if most of it’s false bravado—and by happy accident, I feel the narrative tones match the different kinds of Rose in those different points in her life.

Michael Noll

In all of your work, I’ve admired how you’re able to create space within moments of action for—I don’t even know what to call it, not action, maybe, instead, moments for the character to talk about something else. You have one of those moments near the beginning of the novel. Rose is repelling down a ventilation shaft, and she’s not wearing gloves, which makes her think about the man who tells her to wear gloves, which makes her think about her job and the mission in general, and then she’s wondering about things and only barely paying attention to the task at hand—or, we’re barely paying attention to it as readers. Passages like this make me wonder if you ever find yourself writing, “This happened and this and this and this” and unable to break out of the immediate present and let a character think? Or is this simply some of the magic you’ve got as a writer?

Manuel Gonzales

I don’t know that I would call it some of the magic I’ve got as a writer—or that I have magic as a writer—but more that this is how I see action happening. I find myself easily distracted ALL THE TIME doing any number of simple or complicated tasks, and it drives my family totally bonkers because in getting distracted I forget the task I’m in and move to something else. In fact, I’ve been answering this question for the past twenty minutes, not these questions, this ONE question—and so it seems only natural to me, right?, that you find yourself in a situation where you’re supposed to be laser-focused but not everyone is good at laser-focus, and your mind wanders to the things it worries or cares about—a guy, a girl, that really pretty cardinal on the fence outside your kitchen window, whatever. And you have to bring yourself back to the task at hand, or the external world itself brings you back against your will.

Michael Noll

You’re able to get a lot of pages out of a relatively short period of time. So, for example, you’re able to get 50 pages or so out of the initial attack on the Regional Office. Another writer might have covered much more ground and time in that number of pages. What was your approach to the timeframe of the novel?

Manuel Gonzales

My original thought was to focus mostly just on the day of the attack, just that one day, and toy with the peripheral characters—though of course by default the ones I singled out as peripheral became central—but I wanted to slow down the time of the action mainly because that’s how time works, in my mind, anyway. Things happen really fast and then not at all, and then really fast again, but also I wanted to offer full storylines of characters. I wanted to play around with cutting away from the action to give the reader something different, to delay the gratification but also to create a rounder world, richer characters. But then inevitably, too, cutting away from one moment of action usually meant cutting away to another moment of action. And then I realized I couldn’t tell the whole story of what I wanted to tell—what happened to these people after the attack—unless I also jumped forward in time, and jumping forward meant I could also jump backward, and then time went all topsy-turvy, jingly-jangly, and I decided the topsy-turvy jingly-jangly approach was the best approach for me.

April 2016

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

How to Stretch Present Action

16 Dec
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the novel’s first paragraph, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

How to Create a Narrative Clock

18 Nov
If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, the new collection of linked stories by Judy Chicurel, tells the coming-of-age-story of a young woman on Long Island in 1972 in the midst of drugs and Vietnam.

If you had to boil my MFA experience down to one lesson about craft, it would be this: give every story a clock. That piece of advice came from the program’s director, Tom Grimes, who had been a close friend of the infamous director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Frank Conroy, and so the advice had the feeling of something inescapably essential and true. The problem was that I had no idea how to do it. As a result, like many writers, I struggled to know when to end a story. So, it’s useful to pay attention to writers who know how to set the timer for their own work.

A great clock can be found in Judy Chicurel’s collection of linked stories, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You GoYou can read a sample chapter from the book here.

How the Novel Works

In this interview with Tom Grimes’ in The Austin Chronicle, he explains how the clock works: “it starts ticking when dramatic action happens” and the clock stops “when the dramatic action ends, regardless of what it is. The clock’s out of time, so you can’t add overtime.” So, the clock is connected to dramatic action, which seems obvious and easy until you try it.

Sometimes, what is needed is an artificial clock, one that you consciously set at the beginning of a story or chapter. Judy Chicurel does this at the very beginning of her chapter, “My Country Right or Wrong,” in the description of Mitch:

I had to talk quickly, though, because once Mitch reached a certain point in his drinking it would be useless to try and get his opinion on anything. The good thing was, the drunker he got, he wouldn’t remember most of what we’d talked about so he wouldn’t be able to repeat it to anyone else we knew. The trick was to get his wisdom on the subject before he reached “the click,” “that place between the last drink you should have had and the last drink you actually drank. You know, the one you’re still tasting the next morning, while your head’s exploding and you’re sitting around waiting for the room to blow up,” he once explained to me.

This is the type of clock that George Saunders has said he uses: “there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up.” In this case, Chicurel’s narrator must finish her yapping—say what she needs to say—before Mitch becomes too drunk. The clock has started ticking.

We know the clock will stop ticking when Mitch is too drunk to talk or remember anything. The question is how do we get there? If Mitch simply sits and drinks until he becomes incoherent and then the narrator leaves, we’re likely to feel disappointed in the way that we’re often disappointed when expected things play out in expected ways.

So, it’s interesting to see how Chicurel interrupts an expected chain of events. About halfway through the chapter, her narrator is watching Mitch carefully: “He raised his glass and drained it. I stared into Mitch’s face. His eyes still looked okay.” Then Mitch “licked the dregs of his glass and signaled to Len for another.” He’s getting drunker and talking about awful things that happened to Vietnam vets, and that’s when Chicurel introduces something unexpected: a bunch of construction workers who tell Mitch they don’t appreciate the way he’s running down America. An argument ensues, which Mitch wins, but winning it involves getting off his bar stool in order to fight and rolling up his pant leg to reveal his wooden leg. The scene ends with the bartender settling everyone down and pouring a round of drinks:

When he began making Mitch’s boilermaker, Mitch put up his hand and shook his head, “no.” He threw some bills on the bar and picked up his jacket with the bottle of Gordon’s in the pocket and began walking toward the door that led to the rooms in the hotel.

The clock has stopped ticking. Mitch is about to drink himself beyond “the click,” as promised at the beginning of the chapter. What is unexpected is how he got to that point: leaving the bar after an argument and finishing his drinking alone, rather than yapping it up at the bar.

In short, Chicurel has not only set a clock, but she found a way to make it stop ticking in a surprising way.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a ticking clock using If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel as a model:

  1. Identify the ongoing action. A clock often involves something anticipated by the characters. This could be someone who walks in the door (or doesn’t, as in Waiting for Godot). It can also be a significant event (which is how every sporting event in the world works, with the audience waiting for the last great play). In both cases, the ongoing action is what happens in the meantime, what the characters are doing while waiting for the anticipated thing. This ongoing action could be purposeful and active, like someone trying to defuse a bomb before the timer runs out. The ongoing action can also be less purposeful and less active, like characters sitting around, talking.
  2. Set the clock. The clock is whatever will put an end to the ongoing action: someone arrives, an event occurs, a timer runs out. Inexperienced writers often use the timer that is most readily available: the course of a day. Their chapters and stories begin in the morning and end when the character goes to bed. The key is to find some other way of ending the action. Chicurel uses the effects of alcohol. In other words, the ongoing action ends when her character has had enough (or more than enough). How can you use that criteria for a clock: when will your character have had enough of whatever is happening?
  3. Notice the clock ticking. Chicurel does this by showing Mitch finishing his drink and ordering a new one. In a sporting event, we check the game clock to see how much time is left. If we’re waiting for someone, we watch the door. Make your characters aware that the clock is ticking, and give them an opportunity to check the time in whatever way is appropriate for your ongoing action.
  4. Introduce something unexpected. If your characters are watching the clock, find a way to make them forget it. We’ve all had the real-life experience of saying, “Oh, look at the time!” (and not in an ironic way). The key is to use the elements available to you given your ongoing action. Chicurel’s characters are drinking in a bar, and so she uses other patrons of the bar as interrupters. How can you identify some element of the ongoing action, some detail that exists in the background, and bring it to the foreground? When this happens, you may be able to distract your characters from the ticking clock.
  5. Stop the clock. No matter the distraction, the clock should still stop ticking. The alarm should ring. This moment becomes especially interesting when it interrupts something: the ongoing action or the unexpected interrupter of that action. Just because the characters have forgotten the clock doesn’t mean you, the writer, have. Experiment with ways to bring the clock back into the story.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jennifer duBois

6 Feb
Jennifer Dubois' latest novel, Cartwheel, was included on multiple best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

Jennifer Dubois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included on multiple best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

Jennifer duBois’ latest novel, Cartwheel, was included in at least eight best-of-the-year lists in 2013. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Dubois attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and completed a Stegnor Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and others. She was the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award, and she currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

In this interview, duBois discusses sentence structure and style, her reason for telling a story from multiple points of view, and how she chose Buenos Aires as the setting for Cartwheel.

To read the opening pages of Cartwheel and an exercise on controlling narrative pace with sentence structure, click here.

Michael Noll

The book is a whodunit thriller, and yet the sentences move at a deliberative, almost stately pace. The sentences rarely move in a smooth, straight line. In the first paragraph, for instance, four out of the five sentences contain a phrase that is literally offset by punctuation: commas, dashes, or hyphens. The same thing happens throughout the novel, and, as a result, I was forced to slow down instead of racing ahead to see what happened on the next page–which was a pleasurable relief. Anxious page flipping always causes me to feel as though I’m blindly devouring a jumbo bag of Doritos. I’m curious how aware you were of this sentence style. Was the pace purposeful or simply the way your voice appears on the page? Or was it something that began naturally but fine-tuned through revision?

Jennifer duBois

I never thought of the book as a whodunit, or even really as a thriller. To me Cartwheel is more of a whoisit than a whodunit, I guess you could say: I wanted readers to experience a sense of suspense regarding the question of who Lily Hayes really was, and what they thought she was capable of; I wanted the plot’s twists and turns to stem not only from events, but from readers’ shifting interpretations of those events. And so the sentence structure wasn’t really a conscious effort to slow down the pace; I think I probably do tend to write long sentences anyway—and I definitely get a lot of mileage out of the em dash (case in point). And that tendency was probably amplified by the fact that each chapter is embedded so deeply in each character’s perspective. I really hoped that readers would be persuaded by the logic of each character’s thinking while they were with them, so I tried to capture that thinking in as much detail as I could—there’s a lot of time spent in each of their heads.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from four different points of view: the accused murderer, her father, her boyfriend, and the prosecuting attorney. As a finished product, the novel seems whole and complete, but I imagine that in the early stage of writing it, you were unsure of basic things such as whose point of view to follow. There are other important characters in the novel, but their actions take place mostly off the page. Was it difficult to decide on these four viewpoints? Did you ever try writing from the POV of any other characters?

Jennifer duBois

I knew from the beginning that I would include the prosecutor’s and Lily’s father’s point of view, since it seemed natural to hear from a character totally convinced of Lily’s guilt and a character totally convinced of her innocence. I also knew I’d include Lily’s point of view, but that her sections would end the night of the murder—I wanted her chapters to offer psychological revelations about her character, but not factual revelations about the crime itself. The fourth point of view, Sebastien’s, was the last addition. I liked the idea of hearing from a character whose sympathies weren’t necessarily so pre-ordained as the prosecutor’s or Lily’s father’s were. I also liked the idea of introducing another character whose behavior inspires wildly different reactions, and whose interiority doesn’t always match the way he’s externally perceived. I didn’t think Lily should be the only character in the book who is at the mercy of other people’s interpretations—because in real life, we all are. To misquote St. Francis, I wanted Lily not only to be misunderstood, but to misunderstand.

 Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting sense of place. It’s set in Buenos Aires, but most of the action takes place in a series of closed spaces, not just houses but rooms in houses: Lily’s bedroom, the parlor in her boyfriend’s house, the prosecutor’s bedroom, the rooms in the jail cell where Lily is allowed to talk to her family and lawyers, and the inside of a restaurant where Lily worked. The rest of Buenos Aires appears only briefly, through Lily’s photographs (or as she tours the city, photographing it) or the travels of the other characters to and from the prison. I can imagine beginning this novel and feeling the need to capture the city, to do a kind of travel-show introduction. But this never happens. Were those passages cut, or did you know from the beginning how to approach descriptions of the city?

Jennifer duBois

In her debut novel, Dubois matches a former Russian chess champion intent on challenging Vladimir Putin's political power with a young American college lecturer who, fearing that she has inherited the genes for Huntington's Disease, travels to Russia to find out answers about her dead father.

In her debut novel, Dubois matches a former Russian chess champion intent on challenging Vladimir Putin’s political power with a young American college lecturer who, fearing that she has inherited the genes for Huntington’s Disease, travels to Russia to find out answers about her dead father.

That’s such an interesting observation and question—I never really thought about the number of closed spaces in the book, but you’re totally right. I think it relates to my sense of the book as being “set” in a hazy sphere of personal perception much more than in an objective external reality. There were a few reasons I selected Buenos Aires—I needed a city an American study abroad student might fall in love with, in a country with a judicial system similar enough to our own that said student might not be aware of some key differences. I wanted a country with a language that an American college student might have mastered sufficiently to feel overly confident in. I thought that setting the book in a Catholic country could provide an interesting dimension to its exploration of misogyny/ideas about female sexuality, and that setting the book in a country with such a fraught history with the U.S. could add an interesting angle to the questions about American entitlement/anti-American resentment. But ultimately I didn’t see Cartwheel as trying to depict a particular place as much as trying to depict four different characters’ minds. In a very fundamental way I think Cartwheel is a story that could have been set anywhere—this was very different from my first book, A Partial History of Lost Causes, in which the Russian setting is, in many ways, the book’s soul. And so that’s probably partly why Cartwheel doesn’t linger in the Argentinean setting very much; I hope that readers believe Buenos Aires as the book’s backdrop, but I think its real setting is in the characters’ heads (talk about enclosed spaces).

Michael Noll

 A lot of young writers tend to stick close to home with their work, but this isn’t the case for you. So far, your novels have been about characters who seem, at least on the surface, pretty different than yourself: an American exchange student charged with murder, a father, an Argentinean prosecutor, a Russian chess champion and political dissident. Plus, your novels have mostly been set in countries other than the United States. What draws your imagination to these characters and places? Are you drawing on the books that you read as a child? Were you a news and Time magazine junky as a kid?

Jennifer duBois

I don’t think my own life has really been interesting enough to generate a ton of material for fiction—but even if it had been, I’m not sure writing about it would appeal to me very much. I’m in my own life and memories every day anyway, and there is a real limit to my curiosity about myself. For me, the fun of fiction writing is in imagining lives and experiences that are very different from my own, and in getting to explore ideas or situations that I think are interesting. And because I’ve always been interested in other countries–and in international politics in particular (I was a political science major in college)—that interest winds up showing up in my fiction, along with assorted other preoccupations and hobbies and fun facts and jokes and pet conspiracy theories, etc. If I’m curious about it, it’s going in.

February 2014

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

George Saunders on Narrative Pace

7 Feb
images

George Saunders, author of the new story collection, “Tenth of December.” The title story inspired this writing exercise.

A recent headline in The New York Times Magazine announced, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Such praise may be news to many readers, but for the dedicated followers of Saunders’ stories and essays it only confirms the obvious. Pick up a new book of stories by any promising young writer, and you’ll likely find the influence of Saunders’ first two story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia.

After reading “Tenth of December,” you, too, may be wondering, how you can write like George Saunders. Though he is on tour for his new book, Saunders took a moment to discuss his approach to writing. He focused on the question of how to balance narrative voice with story clarity.

“My method,” Saunders wrote, “is to write more than I need and then radically prune back, vis the criteria that there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up – it all has to be shaped and fast and serve a purpose.”

So, how fast should the internal monologue move? How long can you spend in a narrator’s head before moving the story along?

“It’s nice if the time spent in-head is somewhat mimetic of outside events,” Saunders wrote. For instance, if “90 pages [pass] while the character walks from point A to point B five feet away, [that’s}not so mimetic.”

Given this advice, here’s a quick exercise that can help determine how fast or slow your narrative should move:

  • What is your story’s clock? If a timer is set in the first page, when will it ring? In the case of “The Tenth of December,” the timer rings twice: once when the boy reaches the pond and again when the man reaches the house. Ask yourself: Does my story have a clock? If so, can you hear it ticking in every page? Even a quick reference to the clock can help create a sense of urgency in the reader.

To learn more about George Saunders’ approach to writing, check out this recent appearance on The Colbert Report and this interview with The New Yorker. You can also watch Saunders read from his work and answer questions at Front Porch Journal To find another writing exercise based on his story, click here.

February 2013

%d bloggers like this: