Tag Archives: Rahul Kanakia

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

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

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How to Turn Desire into Motivation and Plot

27 Sep
Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Any writing teacher will tell you that one key to finding a plot is to find your character’s desire: the thing that the character wants badly and will fight for. It doesn’t matter, really, what the desire is (love, money, applesauce) as long as the reader believes it matters to the character. Simple, right?

The problem is that, at the beginning of a draft, we tend to think of characters in a vacuum, floating there waiting to feel and act. But desire has no effect on the world (on plot) when there is nothing around it.  So, one way to build a story is to put your character in the midst of other characters. Once one character begins to state beliefs and desires, it’s likely that your character will react. As in life, many of our desires and feelings are clarified once they’re contrasted with others.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a high school student, Reshma Kapoor, who wants to be valedictorian but worries that someone might beat her. Her desire is clear, but it’s not enough to build a novel on. More is needed. In this passage, we see some of that more:

When I first told Mummy about the perfects, she laughed and said, “No one can be perfect.”

People say that all the time, as if it’s obvious.

But is it?

That’s the problem with people. They think perfection is about things you can’t control: your intelligence or your wealth or your beauty. But if they thought of it as avoiding mistakes, they’d understand how achievable it is.

We all know that it’s impossible to go one hour without making a mistake. And if that’s possible, then it must be possible to string together twenty-four consecutive mistake-free hours into a perfect day.

Having an entire mistake-free day is difficult, but it’s doable.

She lists the ways she didn’t make mistakes (studying, dieting, etc) and then says this:

And if I can have one mistake-free day, then I can have two, and three, and four, and eventually whole weeks and months and years will pass without mistakes. Is that so insane?

This is a nifty piece of writing. It starts with the idea that some girls are perfect, gives one character’s response (no one’s perfect), and then considers whether that’s really true. If perfection is possible, how would the narrator achieve it? She develops a plan.

Kanakia has used that basic desire (be valedictorian) to create plot. Take out the specifics, and you get this: “Main Character wants ____, and some characters seem to have an advantage in getting ____, but So-and-So says that’s not true. But if it is true, then here is how Main Character will beat those characters at their own game.”

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use desire and community to create plot, using Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia as a model:

  1. Find something that your character wants. It can be anything, and there are a few usual suspects: love, money, success. Try using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and water (and other basics required for human survival), safety and security, love and belonging, respect, and the ability to pursue happiness (self-actualization, American-style). In Enter Title Here, Reshma’s desire is a mixture of the last four. If she’s valedictorian, she’ll be assured of a successful career and the financial security it brings. She’ll feel as if she belongs with a group like the perfects. She’ll gain people’s respect and will be able to pursue the life she wants (or so she thinks). Your character’s desire doesn’t need to tap into all of these categories, but it should hit at least one of them. If it doesn’t, it’s probably too fleeting to drive plot forward.
  2. Give the character competition. Reshma wants to be valedictorian, but the perfects might beat her to it. Of course, competition doesn’t necessarily require other characters pursuing the same goal. They might have other goals that put them in the way of your character’s pursuit of her own desire. In the way is the key phrase. If nothing’s in the way, there’s no story: I wanted to be valedictorian, and so I did it.
  3. Create a philosophical framework. Resume’s mother doesn’t say, “You’ll never be as good as the perfects.” Instead, she says, “No one can be perfect.” She’s suggesting a way of seeing and understanding the world. Reshma doesn’t just reject her advice, she also rejects this philosophical framework for another: You can be perfect if you have the willpower. In your story, let a character comment on the competition. Is it possible to defeat it? To be like it? Is it desirable to try? We hear versions of this almost every day: when we fail to get something we want, someone will say, “It’s probably for the best.” Whether we agree or disagree with that statement determines what we do next.
  4. Let your main character disagree with this framework. Reshma decides to beat the perfects at their own game. She can be perfect. She’s saying, in effect, it’s not for the best. How can your character refuse to see the problem the same way as the philosophical character?
  5. Develop a plan. Once Reshma decides to do what seems impossible—be perfect—she creates a plan: be perfect for an hour, then a day, then a week, then for months and years. What is your character’s plan to outwit, outwork, or outperform the competition/obstacle?

The goal is use desire as a starting point for creating character motivation and plot.

Good luck.

How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you’ve taken the challenge, that means you’ve written approximately one-third of a novel. Since novels tend to follow a three-act structure, this also means you’re entering the second act—otherwise known the place novel manuscripts go to die. Why? First acts are relatively easy: you’ve got a burning idea, and you begin in a rush. At some point, though, that idea is going to run into the mechanical reality of the second act. The story often becomes larger, expanding beyond the original frame of the opening pages. Multiple narrative lines are more important than ever to sustain the tension. If you’re writing a first draft, you may be discovering that you don’t know where to go or what happens next. You’re writing aimless passages.

There is no easy solution to this problem; just ask any novelist. However, there are a few strategies that can give your prose direction until the overall structure of the novel reveals itself.

Here are twelve exercises to help push your novel forward, based on twelve great pieces of published writing.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

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 first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, 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. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

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). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. Take a Detour Away from Plot

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky.

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky. He recently published a prequel to that book, the novel, Carrying Albert Home.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks. Homer Hickam offers a good example for how to temporarily derail a plot in his novel Carrying Albert Home:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track. (From Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam. Find the entire exercise here.)

12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

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 first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, 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. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

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). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. How to Write a Story Ending

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. One of the migrants he meets is a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

11 Dec
Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this cool, weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia’s young adult novel, Enter Title Here (its actual title, not a typo) will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2015. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and used to work in the field of international development. Currently, he lives in Oakland, CA, working a freelance writer and content creation consultant.

To read “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” and an exercise on playing with the logistics of genre stories, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses early reactions to his story in a MFA workshop, the source of some of the imagery in the story, and what (if any) connection this supernatural story has on his forthcoming Young Adult novel.

Michael Noll

I love how this story flips some famous tropes from ghost stories. For instance, one of the most darkest sentences is this one: “You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators?” Capturing ghosts was so funny and great in Ghostbusters, but here it’s horribly sad and a sign of something wrong emotionally with the person who does it. Did you set out to subvert this image, or did you simply happen upon it in writing the story?

Rahul Kanakia

Interesting that you bring this up. I actually only thought of the movie Ghostbusters after the story was completed, but it’s obvious that it had some subconscious influence on the imagery of the story. For instance, the vacuum device that I’ve imagined in this story is definitely reminiscent of the apparatus they used in the movie. Regarding this particular image, I can’t say what I was doing. In its first draft, the story was entitled “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and each section was about one thing that annoyed other people but didn’t annoy the narrator. In this case, I think the idea was that the narrator wasn’t bothered by the sound of crying babies (which is said to be one of the most distressing sounds that a human being can hear). The idea with the story was, I think, that the narrator came off as emotionally disturbed because he didn’t have these basic human responses, but, after a lifetime of grappling with these problems, the narrator had started to rationalize these deficiencies as being a sign of a greater and more inclusive heart (i.e. other people are disturbed by babies, so they refuse to have anything to do with them, whereas, in his eyes, he is so great-hearted that he’s willing to go out and extract them from the incubators so that the hospital’s operations can continue).

Michael Noll

Those babies are also part of the real horror of this horror story. For instance, there is a ghost of a baby whose intestines developed on the outside of its body—and what’s horrifying is that this is something that actually happens. But unless it happens to us—to our baby—we rarely give such possibilities any thought. You do something similar with the ghosts of the men who died of AIDS. Is that one of the goals of horror stories? To remind readers of the very real horror that exists in the world?

Rahul Kanakia

I don’t know. This is probably one of the only horror stories I’ve ever read. In the case of the baby w/ the intestines, that’s a result of a documentary on harlequin babies that I once saw late at night. Horrifying images. The men with AIDS was something I tossed in at the last minute. I realized that a 60+ year old gay man will have some experience with the epidemic, and I wanted to be true to that. The imagery of the AIDS patients was drawn from the descriptions in Randy Shilt’s history of the early years of the epidemic: And The Band Played On.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

The title is great—as soon as I saw it, I wanted to read the story. Did you start with this title, which really only begins to introduce the direction the story will go, or did you write the story first and then choose the title?

Rahul Kanakia

As I mentioned above, the original title of the story was “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and it was originally told as a list of seven things. The basic underlying story (a ghostbuster’s roommate has moved out and he’s filled with angst about it) was the same, but the format was very different. However, when I ran it through my MFA workshop, they said the format felt too scattershot, so I decided to tell it as a series of Craigslist house posts. The title is, I think, based on an actual post I saw while looking for housing once. Although, in that case, I believe, the landlord wanted a roommate who wouldn’t drink alcohol.

Michael Noll

You have a young adult novel being published in the next year, so I’m curious how you see this story fitting in with the rest of your writing. Would you give this story to fans of your YA novel? Or are that novel and this story products of separate writing lives that you inhabit?

Rahul Kanakia

My YA novel is very different. Firstly, it doesn’t have any fantastic or science fictional elements. It’s about a high school senior—the valedictorian of her school—who’s very angry with those who she sees as having gotten more recognition than her and who embarks upon all kinds of schemes in order to bring down her enemies. But I do see both this story and that novel as sharing lots of themes. They’re both about people who feel like they’re damaged and outside the mainstream; people who are secretly worried that no one will ever, or could ever, love them. I think the horrifying thing about this story is that in this case, the protagonist is right. He is unloveable. For whatever reason, he’s rendered himself unloveable. My book, though, is not quite as bleak.

December 2014

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

How to Build a Story with Logistics

9 Dec
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Some university creative writing teachers don’t allow their students to write genre fiction: no ghosts, aliens, spaceships, vampires, or zombies unless they’re handled in a literary fashion (whatever that means). This isn’t my policy, but I understand it. Bad genre stories tend to skim the surface of an idea (stun guns, cosmic annihilation) in a cursory way that can be tedious and dull. And yet I’ve found that good genre stories are as much fun to read as any purely literary creation. So what makes a good genre story?

The answer is, in part, how imaginatively the story digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance; we’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story, then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes.

This is precisely what Rahul Kanakia does in his story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley).” He takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It was published at Clarkesworld, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, an emotionally-open and empathetic character would struggle capture and store the ghosts of dead babies (and also of gay men who’d died of AIDS, as also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

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