Tag Archives: Roxane Gay

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn

31 Dec

Every writer must, at some point, come to terms with certain aspects of writing craft. Here are lessons drawn from seven excellent stories featured at Read to Write Stories in 2013.

1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

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Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles and co-fiction editor of BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, and 4’33”.

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford has been a Dobie Paisano Fellow and is finishing a collection of short stories.

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best First Book of Fiction for his short story collection, Shadows of Men.

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now–a period, not an exclamation point–but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection, The Miniature Wife, and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

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Rene Perez is the author of Along These Highways, a story collection that won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation prize.

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti and the forthcoming novel An Untamed State.

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed FruitThe story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

kelly luce

Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. Great sentences–and great lines of poetry–often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary ReviewNotice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

An Interview with Matthew Salesses

11 Jul
is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (2013), The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor. Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks. He was adopted from Korea at age two, returned to Korea, married a Korean woman, and writes a column about his wife and baby for The Good Men Project. He also serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor.
Photo Credit Stephanie Mitchell

When Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she could have been talking about the writer Matthew Salesses. He was adopted from Korea at age two and then, as an adult, returned to Korea, where he married a Korean woman with whom he now has a child. The questions of identity inherent in such a life are enormous, and, fittingly, Salesses has dug deeply into those mysteries in his work. He’s the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just SayingThe Last Repatriate, two chapbooks, plus numerous essays that have appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, NPR, Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Hyphen, and American Short Fiction.

In this interview, Salesses discusses his revision process, avoiding distractions that keep him from writing, and where he draws the line between fiction and nonfiction.

(For an exercise based on his story, “In My War Novel,” which uses repetition to devastating effect, click here.)

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone explain the difference between a story and a novel by saying that a novel was like a baseball game and a story was like a single pitch. This story seems to fit that description. It’s a single movement. To use another metaphor, it’s almost as if the narrator has an immense lung capacity, and this is the story that he can tell before he runs out of breath. Did you conceive of this story in a rush or is that sense of a single, seamless movement the result of a lot of revision?

Matthew Salesses

In a way, both. I wrote the first draft in a rush. Revision took years. Most of my fiction is written in this way–the rush of the first draft and the long work of shaping that draft into something that reads with that rush. For this story, that meant cutting it up several times and moving the pieces around on my floor, adding and deleting pieces, trying to get the length down and also have enough of an emotional arc.

Michael Noll

Even though the story uses a style of repetition and variation (the phrases “In my war novel” and “Before my wife left me” reoccur in various ways) it actually contains a story that’s been told many times: the demise of a marriage. The difference between all those past tellings and this one is, obviously, the telling. How do you typically approach the plot in a story? Do you outline the events/scenes? Or do you start with the voice and discover where it will take you?

Matthew Salesses

It’s a different process for me from story to story. I wish I plotted everything out beforehand every time–I think that would be easier–but I often start with much less. Here I did start with the voice, and let the anger and sadness and frustration in the voice carry the story where it wanted. Then I trimmed it down like a hedge and guided it closer to where I wanted it.

Michael Noll

Here's a cool book trailer video for I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying.

Here’s a cool book trailer video for I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

You’ve written quite a bit about your own experience as an orphan from Korea, and this story–and others–pick up on that idea. How do you determine what goes into a nonfiction piece and what gets used in a story? Where do you draw the line between the genres–or, how do you separate them?

Matthew Salesses

I don’t determine, other than to keep certain things out of nonfiction that might hurt people close to me. I draw the line at telling the truth about what happened, as it happened, versus telling the truth about what happened through changing what happened.

Michael Noll

You’re a prolific writer. In addition to a story collection, novella, and a chapbook plus numerous nonfiction pieces, you also an editor for The Good Men Project. And, you update your blog often. How do you a) keep up with it all and b) produce so much material. You’re also a father, which means that you’re producing all of this while caring for children. How do you do it? I recently asked Roxane Gay this same question, and she attributed her enormous output to living in the middle of nowhere and insomnia. What’s your method?

Matthew Salesses

Roxane produces far more quality work than I do. I do what I can by not watching TV (except for an occasional kdrama), limiting Facebook time, relying on my wife and Twitter for the news, cutting out most sports (I can’t seem to get rid of my love for football), and not going out much. I also have taken up drinking copious amounts of coffee and only sleeping 6-7 hours a night.

July 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

An Interview with Roxane Gay

27 Jun
Roxane Gay is the author of X and the editor of X. She teaches at X.

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti, an editor at both The Rumpus and PANK, and a regular contributor at Salon, where this excellent piece about the Paula Deen controversy recently appeared..

When Roxane Gay claims in the bio on her website, that “I write things,” she’s not being vague, only inclusive. Her long list of publications includes the story collection Ayiti and appearances in story anthologies such as Best American Short Stories 2012 and nonfiction journals like Salon. She’s also the co-editor of PANK and the essays editor at The Rumpus. On top of all of that, she teaches writing as an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.

In this interview, Gay discusses what it means to write a story in the guise of a restaurant menu, the virtues of exposition, and her response to people who claim that there are not that many good writers of color.

(For an exercise based on her menu-themed story “Contrapasso” click here.)

Michael Noll

The first thing every reader will notice about “Contrapasso” is its structure–which is amazing. I’ve never seen a story like it. How did using the conceit of a menu affect how you wrote the story? Did you write the story first and apply it to the structure, or did you take the menu structure and write a story that would make sense within it?

Roxane Gay

This story went through a few drafts. It’s been a while since I wrote this story but even though it has been through a few drafts, the menu structure was always a part of the story. Originally, it was just a few dishes and I was focused more on seven deadly sins and there wasn’t much story there. The editor of Artifice sent me some editorial suggestions and I really took them to heart, and expanded the story into a full blown narrative and the menu structure still worked really well, particularly because I fully committed to it in the revision.

Michael Noll

Just the other day, I heard someone advocating for “show, don’t tell,” but this story seems to show by telling. In part because of the structure, it rarely descends into a scene for longer than a few sentences. There is almost no extended dialogue. Several stories are told that begin and end within a single paragraph (about the cheesemonger, about cooking lobster.) As a result, I’m curious what your attitude is toward that that old advice of “show don’t tell”?

Roxane Gay

We love to talk about showing versus telling in creative writing and the distinction remains useful. That said, sometimes, parts of a story need to be told rather than shown. For better or worse, I use exposition a lot in my writing and I don’t balk when I see exposition in fiction. It’s not that you should show rather than tell. It’s that you should make the choice.

Michael Noll

The “Writing” page on your website is kind of astounding. You’ve published more than 100 stories and many essays. How do you produce so much material? What does your writing process look like?

Roxane Gay

I live in the middle of nowhere and suffer from insomnia quite often and I also write fast because I’m always thinking through story and essay ideas in my head. My writing process involves a lot of procrastination and then sitting down and just writing and writing and writing until I can’t write anymore.

Michael Noll

Roxane Gay's essay "We Are Many. We Are Everywhere" in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It's long and wonderful, especially if you're a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Roxane Gay’s essay “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It’s long and wonderful, especially if you’re a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Last summer, you wrote a piece for The Rumpus (We Are Many. We Are Everywhere) about the idea within the publishing world that the reason writers of color have little visibility is that there simply are not very many of them. So you put together a list. You also said this: “This is not a token list of writers to go to when you need someone to write about race—these writers write about a wide range of subjects.” What reaction did this statement get? What do you think needs to happen so that a statement like that is no longer necessary?

Roxane Gay

Great question. That whole project was really successful. A great list of writers was compiled. I don’t know that the statement you highlighted got a specific reaction but I included it because all too often, people tend to think that writers from a certain group should only write about issues specific to that group. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t compiling a list of race-related subject matter experts. I was compiling a list of writers who happen to be of different races and ethnicities. For a statement like that to no longer be necessary, a list like the one I compiled no longer needs to be necessary. We’re a long way from there.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Why Paragraphs Matter in a Story

25 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

Good luck.

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