Tag Archives: Rachel Kushner

4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also 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 one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?

 

Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?

 

Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.

 

Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

An Interview with Laura van den Berg

18 Jul
Laura van den Berg is the author of X. Her story, "Farewell My Loveds" does x

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming story collection The Isle of Youth. In this interview, she discusses her story, “Farewell My Loveds,” which was published at American Short Fiction and Atticus Review and included in her story collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.

Laura van den Berg is the author of the forthcoming collection The Isle of Youth, a book that prompted a reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly to gush, “If ever there was a writer going places, it’s Laura van den Berg.” Her previous story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us from Dzanc Books, was called “stunning, desolate, and unforgettable” by Booklist.

In this interview, van den Berg discusses her drafting process, how a childhood spent in Florida gave birth to a slanted sense of reality, and how she reads to solve her own writing challenges.

(For an exercise based on her weird and tender story “Farewell My Loveds” click here.)

Michael Noll

You do such a great job at creating suspense in this story: What is the nature of the hole in the street? How did the parents die? Who was Calvin? I’m curious how you approach a scene or section of a story. Do you begin with an idea (for instance, a hole in the street) and then write a scene that revolves around that mystery, delaying as long as possible the answer? Or do you start with something more nebulous and then create the elements of suspense in revision?

Laura van den Berg

I’m an “intuitive drafter,” which means I usually barrel ahead without any kind of plan and end up with a mess on my hands. The real story often doesn’t emerge until I’m deep into revision. But for “Goodbye My Loveds,” the narrator was always grappling with not having access to certain kinds of information, so many of those questions were present in early drafts. However, the handling of those questions—what will be revealed; what will be denied; what will be offered in the place of the missing information—changed dramatically during the revision process.

Michael Noll

One thing I love about this story is how quickly you’re able to establish the dynamic between the brother and sister. There’s one moment in particular that is really great. The sister has convinced her brother to leave the hole and go back into their apartment. You write, “He thanked me for looking at the hole and apologized for waking me so early. I told him it was okay, I was glad to see it.” There’s such sweetness in that moment. It comes shortly after the sister says that her brother “was twelve, but most people thought he was younger.” In just a few sentences, you’re able to show a basic dynamic (he’s immature and headstrong, she’s protective) but also how much they care for each other. How did you develop these characters in your head? Did you begin with sketches of them? Or did you drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged?

Laura van den Berg

For this story, “drop them into the premise to see what personalities emerged” would be the most accurate. I did a lot of work around adding texture/complications to the brother-sister relationship, but that rapport was, happily, there from the beginning.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you describe your own work. If someone asks you, “What kind of stuff do you write?” what do you say? I ask because this story has a strong non-realistic element. I’m not sure what to call it: absurdist, fantastic? At the very least, the premise is elevated beyond what we generally think of as realism. Your other stories do this as well. You have one about an actress who takes a job pretending to be Bigfoot. Other writers (George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell) have a similar aesthetic. It’s as if you and they are combining the light, fun qualities of pulp with the emotional depth of literary fiction. What do you think? Do people ever look at you funny when you tell them you’ve written a great, serious, beautiful story about Bigfoot?

Laura van den Berg

I would agree that my work isn’t quite realist, but I’d be hesitant to put myself in league with George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell—and not just because they are all staggeringly good writers whose work I admire greatly!

Laura van den Berg's "Where We Must Be" tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot.

Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be” tells the story of a woman who finds a job playing the role of Bigfoot. You can read it at The Nervous Breakdown.

To take the Bigfoot story as an example: a more committed fabulist—or magical realist, etc—might very well have Bigfoot appear as a character in all his (her?) monstrous glory, where as “Where We Must Be” concerns a woman dressing up as Bigfoot, which is certainly unusual, but could, for all we know, be happening somewhere in the world as this very moment (I kind of hope it is!). To me reality seems perpetually multifarious, bewildering; it often evolves, sometimes instantaneously, without our consent. I am most drawn to fiction, and hope to write fiction, where the force of that disorientation is felt.

Aesthetic and perspective are often inexorably linked—how do you see the world? Where are you coming from when you sit down to write? I grew up in Florida, a deeply odd place, in a large family prone to eccentricity. For example, we kept, for a time, a wolf as a pet. Her name was Natasha and she lived in our suburban backyard, where she became a prodigious pacer and digger of holes. In graduate school, the details my peers often tagged as being “surreal” and “bizarre” seemed pretty normal to me; without knowing it, I had carried the eccentricity that I had lived, that felt as much like “reality” as anything, over into my work. In time, I realized that aesthetic/perspective could become not only a stylistic feature, but also a meaningful narrative tool.

I was even more conscious of this when working on my second collection, The Isle of Youth, due out in November. All the stories involve crime/mystery in one way or another: a woman investigating the mysterious death of her scientist brother in Antarctica; a gang of teenage bank robbers called the Gorillas; twin sisters who trade identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. I love noir, and I was aware of using that stylistic features as a means of reaching a new—for me—emotional/psychological/aesthetic space.

Going back to Bigfoot, people do look at me funny sometimes. Occasionally people seem surprised that a woman would write about Bigfoot, which surprised me as I hadn’t been aware that cryptids were such masculine territory. And a lot of people have asked if I had ever worked as a Bigfoot impersonator. I’m always a little heartbroken when I have to answer “no.”

Michael Noll

I believe you’re currently at work on a novel. When you find yourself stumped, which writer do you turn to?

Laura van den Berg

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is about motorcycle racing and the New York art world of the 1970s.

I am often stumped and while, like most any writer, I have a huge stable of “favorites,” I often find myself turning to whatever I’m reading at the time. For example, I recently finished Rachel Kushner’s stunning novel The Flame Throwers and that novel taught me a great deal about writing a certain kind of first person narrator—and also a great deal about endings. So what I’m reading often helps me with whatever puzzle has been tripping me up—Ah! How did the writer pull off that ending/scene/tone/structure?—or even helps in the sense that it shows me what I hope to avoid in my work—Where did things go awry? How could the writer have avoided falling into that particular trap? How can I avoid falling into that trap? I usually am reading a few books at the same time and more often than not, they are all teaching me something.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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