Tag Archives: Nina McConigley

How to Keep Readers From Skimming Over Your Passages about Setting

11 Jan

Pre-orders available now.

I’ve always felt conflicted about the term “page turner.” I love thrilling novels as much as the next person and remember lying on the mattress on the floor of my bare-walled college apartment one summer, reading the latest Harry Potter novel until about four in the morning. But as much as I love dying to know what will happen, I just as equally loathe when I’m so compelled to reach the end that I start flipping ahead. That’s the wrong sort of page-turner. At the very least, the prose ought to hold your eye to every word.

The passages most likely to get skimmed by readers are descriptions of setting—and for good reason. Done badly, they are mere lists of adjectives and florid metaphors. Readers skim them because they don’t do anything. “Yes,” we think, “we get it: the mountains are tall and pretty. Now, move it along.”

The best writers can make descriptions of setting as interesting and compelling as the drama that follows. The trick is learning how to do it yourself.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from one novel and three stories: “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

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

Take a Tour, inspired by “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley

  1. IDENTIFY THE MOTIVE FOR THE TOUR. The character leading the tour may have a destination in mind. Or the tour might be a way to kill time until some scheduled or expected moment. In McConigley’s case, the tour leads to both: a destination where Larson will make his request. This intention, or motive, is crucial. Without it, the characters are simply wandering around.

 

 

Break Setting into Neighborhoods, inspired by “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A NEIGHBORHOOD TO INHABIT. To start, choose a common term (downtown, suburbs, etc.) that broadly applies to the neighborhood where your character lives, works, or spends time. Imagine that the character (or someone else) is explaining the location of this neighborhood. What phrase or term would be used? Not every character will necessarily use the same term. People who live downtown often view anything beyond their borders as the suburban hinterland, but people living outside of downtown will say things like, “I’m only 10 minutes from downtown,” suggesting that the suburbs are farther out. What does your character (and others) call your character’s neighborhood?

Give Setting a Human Geography, inspired by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER BEHAVIOR TO OBSERVE. Just as people who buy cars or have babies tend to pay close attention to other cars and other parents with babies, all people/characters tend to notice certain behaviors more than others. The question is this: What concerns are on your character’s mind? Someone who just bought a car, for example, is worried about buying the best/cheapest/safest one. What decision has your character made or what decisions must the character make on a daily basis? The rationale for those decisions will likely cause the character to notice people with the same rationale or, perhaps, who make different choices.

Manipulate Characters with Setting, inspired by “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis

  1. START WITH A PRONOUN. Davis’ story begins with we. It’s impersonal; we could be anyone. By the end of the sentence, it’s clear that the identity of we is wholly contingent on the setting. We are the people on the airplane. Nothing else about them matters. So, give yourself a pronoun: we, he, she, us, they, it. Don’t use a name. Avoid nailing down details for now. The point is to give your story a warm body, nothing more.

 

Setting should be more than a backdrop. The best writers find ways to bring setting and drama together, forcing them to interact.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

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An Interview with Nina McConigley

14 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, from Five Chapter Books.

The title of Nina McConigley‘s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapter Books), reflects her cross-cultural, well-traveled history. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Wyoming, and earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from universities in three different states. This constant movement, perhaps, is what gives McConigley’s fiction its observant, thoughtful tone. Her narrators inhabit their worlds almost as curators, observing and explaining themselves to the audience. Appropriately enough, the title of another story, “Curating Your Life,” was a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 edited by Dave Eggers.

McConigley currently lives in Austin, TX, and is at work on a novel. She took time to answer a few questions about her story “White Wedding.”

Michael Noll

Toward the end of “White Wedding,” the narrator, Lucky, thinks, “When people asked me about being bi-racial, I had a pat answer.” She’s clearly aware of the insufficiency of the answer but doesn’t have a better one (at least not that she can articulate). On one hand, she feels increasingly disconnected from white Casper. On the other hand, Lucky doesn’t feel a strong connection to her Indian heritage, either. These are huge, existential questions, and yet the story never becomes ponderous. The narration is always rooted in particulars: the town, the mother’s sari, the bridesmaids in the wedding, the regulars at the coffee shop. How did you manage this balance—portraying a character’s deep-seated, internal uncertainty while keeping the story rooted in concrete detail?

Nina McConigley

Of all the stories in the collection, this was perhaps the most personal one. Many aspects of this story are autobiographical. So, I think in many ways, the story echoes my own uncertainty about questions I have about identity. For me, it’s hard to write about this subject without getting a little sentimental. But, I am a Wyoming girl through and through. Wyoming has a very live-and-let-live attitude. People lose cattle, oil prices drop and we go into a bust, weather is brutal – and people don’t complain. They just get on with it or cowboy up.

I wanted the story to reflect a bit of both attitudes. That Lucky was dealing with hard and big questions, but she also didn’t wallow in it. She got on with her life. Thanks for saying I managed a balance – I think I am always struggling with that. This was the very last story I wrote for the collection, and again, the most personal, so I really was working hard not to make death, not to make talking about identity in a way that was eliciting a lot of sympathy towards Lucky. I wanted to tell her story by her routines, by her actions.

Michael Noll

Many beginning writers can feel overwhelmed by the notion that every object in a story must have symbolic or emotional significance. How do you choose the details and imagery that recurs in a story? Is it luck? Do you place objects into a story and hope they will gather significance like a rock gathers moss? Or do you plant the images intentionally?

Nina McConigley

A bit of both! I wish I could say I was actually a lot deeper than I am and certain images or objects were so planned and planted. But, many things that carry weight in this story do occur in small town Wyoming life. The prairie dog (although I like that Lucky sits and thinks about all the other symbols she could have been) is something I see all the time, and I find their movements so intense and curious.

I knew I wanted saris to come in the story. Saris for Indian women hold such weight, and I wanted them at the wedding, I wanted them in a scene with the mother. They are a costume and they are an important cultural object. I realized when I was talking about saris in the past, they had to come up again in the present. But I always knew I was going to end the story with a prairie dog and the reader not knowing if she’d killed it or not. The rest were probably luck…

Michael Noll

I love the first paragraph of this story. It’s a list of all the ways the narrator encounters whiteness in her life–beginning with her sister “marrying white” and ending with “at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9% white. We fell into the 1.5% that was Other.” What I find so amazing about this paragraph is how you move from the particular to the sociological. Not all writers would think to consider their character’s situation from such a broad perspective. What made you move in that direction? What did that perspective add to the story?

Nina McConigley

I think in many ways, for me, writing about race and about growing up in Wyoming has been hard for me. Also, I am bi-racial – so I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about identity. In some ways, just being factual, being matter-of-fact, helps me tell the story better.

Again, a lot of this story is autobiographical. I love Wyoming so very fiercely. It is my home in a way that is deep and strong. But, I also grew up seeing almost no reflection of myself beyond my mother and sister. It gets to you a little. But, I don’t want to seem like woe is me when I say that. Wyoming made me who I am. In my writing I want to acknowledge and praise the place, but also be honest about my experience of being different in a pretty profound way.

By listing the facts, I was hoping I could do that fairly.

Michael Noll

You’re a pretty varied writer. You’ve written stories, journalism articles, and a play. I gather from your website that you’re now at work on a novel. How does your experience with that form compare to the others?

Nina McConigley

Oh, I am feeling very adrift with novel writing. I have to admit, with stories, I think for a long time before I write, writing most of the story in my head. So, when I sit down to write, the first draft comes pretty quickly (I may think for months!). That has not been the case with this novel. It’s been so much slower. And I’ve had to plan so much more, and dare I say it – outline.

It also affects my reading. I can’t read a novel now without looking at the structure, the pacing, how information is released. It’s changed everything. I started a novel two years ago that went nowhere, and at that point, I thought I don’t have it in me to write a novel. But, then I had a story in my head that had too much business for a short story. It’s turned into the novel. I am almost done, and it’s been like no writing experience I’ve ever had. I haven’t really shown it to anyone yet, but I am kind of in love with it. It may go nowhere, but I feel really proud of writing a novel.

March 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories.

To find a writing exercise based on “White Wedding,” click here.

Show the Narrator’s Evolution

12 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

If someone asks, “What happens in the story?” the answer can tell you a lot. Maybe it’s a series of actions: guy gets killed in the Louvre, and so another guy interviews people, solves puzzles, meets Jesus’ great-great-etc granddaughter, and together they catch the killer. The main character probably doesn’t have much of an interior life. All changes are plot changes.

But what if the answer is “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?” The story is in his head. A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: “Now he felt different.” But how?

Nina McConigley solves this problem masterfully in “White Wedding.” The story is included in her debut collection from Five Chapter Books, but you can read it here at Memorious.

How the Story Works

The narrator, Lakshmi, lives (and has chosen to live) in Casper, Wyoming, a city and state with an almost-entirely white population. She claims to be comfortable with standing out, but by the story’s end, she has perhaps decided to leave, in part because of her feelings about identity and place. As a result, the reader can gauge Lakshmi’s movement toward “the speed of [her] own escape” by how she feels about Casper.

Here are a few examples of her evolution:

  • The first paragraph ends with this statement: “We were used to white people.”
  • Halfway through the story, the narrator remembers her dying mother’s wish not to be “buried in Western clothes.” Instead, her mother asks to be buried in a sari. The problem is that the “people in the funeral home won’t know how.” But neither does the narrator. As she practices putting on the sari, her mother tells her Lakshmi that she should wear one more often. The narrator remembers thinking, “I would like to wear them more often. But where? To the Wonder Bar? To work?” Suddenly, the narrator isn’t so certain about her relationship to the place’s whiteness.
  • By the day of the wedding, the narrator has learned to dress someone in a sari. But that ability does not give her a connection to her Indian identity. When asked how she feels about being bi-racial, the narrator has usually answered, “It’s the best of two worlds! I get to be American, and Indian. I have two cultures to choose from!” But she’s learned that “the halves did not make a whole.” She is satisfied with neither white Casper nor her Indian heritage. As a result, she perhaps decides to strike out and find her own place and identity.

Notice how McConigley invests the narrator’s feelings about ethnicity in a specific object: a sari. The writing is never vague. The first paragraph even gives a statistic about the whiteness of Casper. The lesson, then, is to give the narrator an existential concern—Who am I? What am I doing?—and embody that concern in a particular place, object, or person.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a character. You can invent one from scratch or choose an existing character from a story draft. 
  2. Find an existential problem. Answer this question: When the character can’t sleep at night, what does he/she think or obsess about? Write the answer as a general statement (Carl wonders if he’ll ever find love.)
  3. Locate that problem in something concrete. Embody your answer in a place, object, or person. For example, my character Carl might be really ugly, and so he obsesses about a particular feature of his face or body. Or perhaps he lives in a place where no one shares his interests (canning, video games, musicals).
  4. Change the character’s attitude toward the problem. Brainstorm how the character’s feelings toward that place, object, or person change over the course of time. So, Carl might become less self-conscious about his looks. Or he might decide to move somewhere that has people like him. Or he might change his views on the requirements of love—maybe people don’t need to share interests. Maybe there’s something else that can attract lovers. Once you find the change that will occur, you can create a story (obstacles for the character to encounter) that will allow them to take place.

It’s possible that this exercise will feel too didactic, as though you’re telling the reader too much. Keep in mind that these notes are for you. If you know how your character feels (and evolves), it will be easier to keep the story moving in the right direction.

Good luck!

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