Tag Archives: short stories

How to Merge Literary and Genre Stories

20 Oct
Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a “genre-bending debut” (O Magazine), full of “monstrous surprises and eerie silences” (Vanity Fair).

Perhaps the most significant movement in American fiction is the genre-bending mashup. Karen Russell nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for Swamplandia, a novel whose setting (alligator theme park in the Florida Everglades) would have fit perfectly with the campy premises of 1960s sitcoms like The Munsters and The Addams Family or many of today’s reality shows. In a similar way, George Saunders combines speculative fiction with a literary narrator in his story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and Kelly Link merges a lush southern landscape with a world of fairies in “The Summer People,” the first story in her latest collection, Get In Trouble. It’s a good bet that almost every writing workshop in the country includes someone writing a monster story or some other genre-inspired piece of literary fiction.

The problem that those beginning writers often encounter, though, is that genres don’t merge easily as you might imagine when reading Link, Saunders, and Russell. As readers, we have expectations for realist fiction, and we have quite different expectations for stories featuring a Weekly World News roster of characters: werewolves, aliens, psychopaths, and alligator wrestlers. A story that begins in one genre tends to begin with a particular tone, a nod to the readers’ expectations, and then when the genre shifts, so must the tone. It’s this shift that gives so many writers fits.

Lincoln Michel demonstrates how to negotiate this shift in his story, “Dark Air,” which is included in his collection Upright Beasts and is almost certainly one of the most genre-bending stories ever to appear in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about an alien that infects other creatures, transforming them physically and giving them the telepathic powers. As you might expect, the story includes a fair amount of gore and a few scenes that would fit neatly into a horror film. But none of this is evident in the story’s opening. Here are the first two sentences:

How we ended up in those backwoods hills was Iris said we needed to ‘get a little air,’ and Dolan added, ‘country air!’ and that was that. Iris was my lover, and Dolan was her roommate I’d never liked.

This opening has a sense of foreboding (backwoods hills), but there’s no sense yet that the story will inevitably become a kind of horror story. At this point, it could just as easily become a version of E. B. White’s super-literary essay “Once More to the Lake,” but with some relationship drama thrown in. But that’s not where the story is going, as the next sentence makes clear:

All of us were alive, at that point.

That line telegraphs the general twist the story will take, which is necessary, but the story is attempting to have a foot in both genre and literary. It’s engaged in a balancing act, and so what follows is a nuanced mix of realism and horror. After this death prediction, the story immediately refocuses on non-genre elements:

I had no problem with city air. I figured it was the same air out there as in here, but the decision had been made in my presence without my participation.

‘You know what we mean, goofus,’ Dolan said. ‘The noise. The lights.’

Iris giggled and put her hand on Dolan’s arm. They had their own private definition of humor.

A few hours later we were rolling through the hills. We’d been in a car the whole time and we had the windows up, AC blasting. We hadn’t yet felt the country air.

Into these realist elements, Michel introduces hints of danger, which are amplified given the prediction of death:

The roads up in these mountains were littered with signs. Caution for this, danger about that. Falling rocks, bobcat crossing, dangerous incline. There must have been a dozen ways for us to be crushed or torn apart.

‘You never see green like this in the city,’ Iris was saying. She clicked away with her phone as we rounded a chunk of mountain that had been blown open with dynamite.

Caution signs are, of course, part of the natural setting of the story, but in this passage they’re clearly establishing a tone and setting the stage for less realistic forms of danger. When that danger arrives, it literally break into the midst of a realist moment:

Dolan had his headphones on and Iris was pretending to sleep.

‘Hey, I said –’

I think that’s around when the creature burst from the bushes on the side of the road.

The realist moments don’t vanish at this point in the story, but the genre elements become increasingly visible. The balance between the two is easier to strike because it’s been introduced on the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s merge literary and genre stories, using “Dark Air” by Lincoln Michel as a model:

  1. Identify the expectations of the genre element. Horror stories are, well, horrific. So, a suggestion of imminent danger and the risk of death or pain is needed. Speculative fiction often has a technical focus—the details of the technology or futuristic detail. Detective fiction, crime fiction, romance, and fantasy (classical and otherwise) all carry with them particular expectations. If you’re not sure about what these are, you can open almost any book that is situated firmly in a genre. The first page almost always tells the reader in both clear and nuanced ways what kind of story it is.
  2. Include a clear marker of genre. Michel does this with the sentence, “All of us were alive, at that point.” Speculative or science fiction might include a direct reference to technology. Detective fiction might allude to a crime or mystery. Blunt is good.
  3. Find ways to hint at those expectations (and marker) within realist prose. I keep saying realist because that is the default mode of contemporary American and English-language fiction. It may be different in other countries, cultures, and languages. But since it’s the starting point of most (though not all) American literary fiction, it’s a good place to begin. So, find ways to drop genre hints into that realistic prose. Michel does this with the caution signs on the side of the road and the dynamited mountain. They carry forward the tone set by the marker without directly referring to it. To do this, think about the tone of the marker you’ve used or the usual language and images of the genre. Is there diction from the genre that overlaps with realist diction? Or, vice versa, is there realist diction that carries the same tone or connotation as the language of the genre? You can play with image in the same way. How can you use the realist aspects of the setting (warning signs, dynamited mountain) to convey the same tone that genre-specific images might convey?

The goal is to use images and word choice to set the stage for the shift from realist fiction to genre fiction in order to create a new hybrid. When done well, the inevitably introduction of the genre element won’t feel out-of-place but, rather, something that is part of the natural fabric of the story.

Good luck.

How to Give a Story’s Plot Enough Fuel to Finish

18 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas, from the burning of Lawrence to the aftershocks still present today.

As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enough pieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.

A terrific example for how this can be done is Andrew Malan Milward’s story, “I Was a Revolutionary.” It’s the final story in his new collection, I Was a Revolutionary, and was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story has three primary plot lines, and each one is introduced right away. Here’s the first:

On the first day I tell them: “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”

No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute.

The narrator is an adjunct instructor of Kansas history at the University of Kansas. He’s developed a passion for the subject, but his students are less than enthusiastic. Will he be able to get their attention, and, if so, what will happen? The first plot line is established.

Here’s the second line:

I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7-8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.

The narrator’s wife is divorcing him, and, as with all good divorce stories, being separated just mean they’re physical parted. They still work in the same place, which leads to the final plot line:

I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the history department, pops in to say hello.

“Welcome back, partner. How was break?”

“Cold,” I say.

He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.

Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor.

Not only does the narrator work in the same place as his soon-to-be ex-wife, but he is also, to some extent, dependent on her for his job, which his boss makes clear through awkward concern.

The story introduces these plots lines succinctly but clearly. This is important to remember because it would easy to read this story and several of the others in the collection and focus on the innovative way that Milward combines history with present action. This story in particular includes long lists of historical facts and events, and it might be tempting to view it as idiosyncratic or experimental—which it is, in a way. But it’s also quite deliberate about the way it introduces plot, which helps get the reader to buy in to its more unconventional qualities.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce multiple plot lines, using “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward as a model:

  1. Identify a primary plot line. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” this is probably the narrator’s divorce and deteriorating relationship with his wife. Because he’s getting divorced, his job is in jeopardy and he gets involved with two students in a way that he might previously have avoided. This also happens to be the most usual of the plot lines; marriage/divorce stories are a standard of pretty much every genre. So, consider which of your potential plot lines most resembles a standard plot line, one that would drive a popular film. Sum it up in a line.
  2. Build a plot line from the world of the plot. What is happening around this primary plot. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” the characters work at a university. This may have been deliberately chosen by Milward, or it might have just been a job he stumbled upon when writing the story—it doesn’t matter. Whatever exists around the plot, make it matter. Find a way to make its very existence hinge on the outcome of the primary plot. For example, if the divorce goes badly, we know the narrator’s job could be at risk. So, find a way to put the foundation of your characters’ lives at stake: jobs, home, children, whatever makes them happy or secure. Connect it to the primary plot.
  3. Build a plot line from the characters’ interests. This may be the most idiosyncratic plot line. As with the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects an obsession with Kansas history. Yet there it is, figuring dramatically in the story. Milward accomplishes this by making it relevant to the narrator: he was once part of the Weather Underground, and so when he discovers the revolutionary past of Kansas, he’s naturally drawn to it and feels compelled to share it with other revolutionary-minded individuals—in this case, his students. Of course, revolutionary is a hazardous career path, as is working with people whose fervor dwarfs your own. The important thing is that the narrator’s interest in Kansas history ties in with his job and, thus, his divorce. This may seem inevitable, but it’s not. Lots of people who are not college instructors visit war sites and re-enact battles. But Milward found a way to channel this interest into the world he’d created for the story. So, identify an interest or obsession in your character and a way to connect it to the world of your story.
  4. Play with the connections. If you build these plot lines from the same basic materials (the world of the story), then they will eventually collide, which is what you want.

Good luck.

How to Dig Deeper into a Scene

4 Aug
Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that I tend to create a potentially interesting scene and then exit it too quickly. I don’t think I’m alone. Because stories value compression, it’s natural to compress everything, all of the time. But the best moments in a scene don’t always arrive immediately. To reach them, you must dig deeper into the scene to discover what’s inside.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” starts with a long scene that ends with a great, tense, plot-driving moment. It was published in The New Yorker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story’s opening lines set the scene:

It’s one of those airlines where you get your seat assignment at the gate, and they’re late to Logan and slow to get through security, so the lady at the counter can’t seat Charity and her mom together. Which means five-plus hours of freedom—hallelujah!

Charity is fifteen years old, and so, of course, the story makes her sit next to this guy:

When the guy appears, he’s older, way older—like thirty, maybe. He wears leather sandals and a powder-blue slim-cut dress shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled. When he lifts his black backpack up into the overhead compartment, Charity finds herself staring straight into his exposed navel, a bulging outie like a blind gold eye in his belly, which was waxed at some point and is now stubbled, like a face. The top of his boxers peeks up above the waist of what Charity just so happens to recognize as three-hundred-dollar True Religion jeans.

This is the point where it would be tempting to dive directly into conflict and, then, end the scene. But that’s not what Taylor does. He’s got a potentially tense situation, and he milks it.

First, he flirts with her a bit, mildly, but the flirtation ends quickly when he becomes absorbed in a newspaper. Next, Charity falls asleep and wakes to find that she’s been resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Then, they stand up at the same time to use the restroom, and when they return, talk a bit until this moment:

“I’m Mark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Charity.”

“Charity. That’s pretty.”

She can feel her cheeks warming. “I don’t know.”

“No, really. It is. You are.”

“O.K. I mean, thank you. Thanks.”

He gives her his number, and then this happens:

He palms her inner thigh and squeezes it, two pumps, the second one a hard one, his wrist digging against the crotch of her jeans.

“Call me when you get bored, Charity,” he says.

To arrive at this moment has taken almost a third of the story. We’re not stunned at this turn of events because it was suggested by their proximity to each other. But, we are creeped out. Taylor has slowly led us to the man’s hand on Charity’s thigh, giving the scene space to steadily make us more uncomfortable. So, how did he do it?

The situation (young girl, older man) presents an obvious narrative arc. Rather than rushing to that ending, Taylor picks a series of moments to depict along the way, inching us closer and closer to the inevitable end. They’re small moments: minor flirtations and incidental physical contact, but because we suspect where this is headed, each moment is charged. That charge is the reason we savor the scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dig into a scene using “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor as a model:

  1. Identify the situation and a natural narrative arc. This is something you may do after you’ve written a rough draft of the scene, simply because we don’t often know what’s going on until we’re in the thick of it. So, state the situation as clearly and succinctly as possible (teenage girl sat next to pervy man on plane). Then, consider in what direction the scene could naturally move (man hits on girl). The genius of many scenes is not that they do the unexpected but, rather, that the expected thing is so dramatic and tense. In a horror movie, when a character walks into the dark alone, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the wait that thrills us. So, figure out where you’re going with the scene.
  2. Brainstorm points along the arc. What large or small moments might occur before the scene’s end? Taylor’s moments are both large (she falls asleep on the man) and small (he lets her by to use the restroom). What matters is that each encounter builds on the previous one. Richard Ford once said that stories make impossible things possible. In this story, Taylor allows the characters to become comfortable enough with each other that the man’s hand can move to the girl’s thigh. The man wouldn’t do this immediately. Seduction (or at least familiarity) is needed. How can you show the steps required to allow your ending to occur?
  3. Build mini-scenes around each point. Each moment in Taylor’s scene is not long. The moment when Charity awake with her head on the man’s shoulder is only a few paragraphs. Each moment has its own small arc—its own increasing tension. So, in each of your mini-scenes, think about how you can ratchet up the tension, even a little. How can each mini-scene end with more tension than it began?

Good luck.

An Interview with Christine Grimes

2 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, "The Window," appeared in 2 Bridges Review.

Christine Grimes is a Texas-born writer living in upstate New York. Her story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review.

Christine Grimes teaches at SUNY Jefferson and has led writing workshops and craft seminars for Black River Writers and Fort Drum’s women’s conference. Grimes’ work has been included in From Where You Dream, a collection of craft lectures by Robert Olen Butler. She also hosts the North Country Writers Festival in Watertown, NY, annually, as well as the monthly reading and performance series, First Fridays, in Sackets Harbor, NY. Her stories have been published in journals such as Harpur Palate, Cutthroat, Passages North, and 2 Bridges Review. She is currently at work on a collection of stories and a supernatural thriller set in Sackets Harbor, NY.

To read “The Window” by Christine Grimes and an exercise on structuring a plot around a character’s lack of change, click here. In this interview, Grimes discusses the ten-year road to publication for “The Window,” the problem of where to begin a story, and the legal issues of using real-world references in a fictional story.

Michael Noll

I know that “The Window” has had a long life between first draft and publication (ten years?). How did it change in that time? Or, what revisions finally got it to the final draft?

Christine Grimes

I first drafted this story for a Texas State University MFA workshop in 2004 and it finally found a home when it was published in 2015 with 2 Bridges Review. Remarkably, the story’s structure and who the character was didn’t change drastically during those eleven years. A lot of my stories are rooted in working-class monotony that stretches into the weird and absurd. I wanted to portray a woman who truly believes she’s destined for greatness and is stuck in a dead-end job that moves from unpleasant and slides into a surreal nightmare without her quite realizing that it’s occurring until it does.

Like many MFA students, I revised shortly after workshop and sent it out into the world for rejection. I submitted a couple times a year and when I’d hear back from journals, sometimes there would be an encouraging note, but mainly it was those little scraps of paper (in the days before Duotrope) saying thanks, but no thanks. Every time it came back, I’d read it through again and cut some words, some lines, some paragraphs. I’d rework a passage or two. Then I’d send it out during the next 3-day weekend or block of vacation time I had. I landed a few other stories I’d written for Tim O’Brien’s workshop at journals during those years and that, coupled with the encouraging rejections, was enough to keep me still sending this one. 

When I wrote newer stories, I sent those instead, but something always drew me back to this one, so I kept tinkering. I removed filters, cut some more words, and sent again. When I compare the 2004 draft to the 2015 published version, many of the original lines are still included, but they are cleaner and the chaff has dropped away. I also have added lines to each key scene that either roots it in sensory description, calls back to something else in the story, and/or transitions between ideas. In the final paragraph for instance, the middle of the paragraph was added: “The cloudy smear shrinks as the impression from his hot breath fades until the window is clear.” Before that sentence was added, the paragraph moved too quickly and the beats didn’t effectively root the reader with the narrator in that final, isolated moment. When I look through the story, there are sentences like this throughout, but I doubt I ever would have gotten to those without the cuts that made the space and air for them to arrive.

Michael Noll

I really like the opening scene at the bar, where the narrator gets embarrassed by the guy she met. It’s an interesting scene to begin the story with because it’s set outside of the chip factory, where the entire story is basically set. It also happens outside the time frame of the day that the story is mostly set in. Did the story always begin with this scene? Or, did you add it to achieve a particular effect?

Christine Grimes

The story always included this scene, but it wasn’t until I revised the story several times over that I realized its importance to the narrative. Originally, I’d written it to set her in small town ambiance, show her life outside of work wasn’t much better, and make her late to work. While it did create that effect, I thought of cutting it and starting in the chip factory during revisions. Then I realized that it’s important that she has the man’s attention and hopes for romance until his friends mock him for his interest. It sets up a parallel for the final scene where she is on display and falls at the mercy of several guys together. Although she is able to convince herself the first event doesn’t matter, her willingness to hope for some connection with the final guy who exposes himself leaves her in an even more vulnerable position. Her inability to recognize the reality of a situation repeats throughout the story.

Michael Noll

I also love the daydream about becoming a food critic. I remember this part from all those years ago in workshop. Since this an internal moment for the narrator (as opposed to a present-tense scene), it probably has the ability to move about the story until it finds its right location and size. Was this the case? Or was this daydream always present in the story in basically this same place, in the same way?

Christine Grimes

Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Thanks. It was something I had a lot of fun with, particularly because her idea of becoming a food critic is vastly different from what many would imagine. She isn’t cooking up exciting dishes at home and no one is coming to her for restaurant recommendations. The daydream always appeared in this format and was one of the few things I decided not to tinker with in the story.

Surprisingly, one of the most difficult challenges with revision to this story was centered around food. I’d named the factory after a well-known corn chip company and used it throughout. Sometimes it was a benefit I suppose – a kind editor at Carve wrote to tell me the story had made it through the  early rounds for their contest but didn’t make it to the finals, then noted she was a sucker for those chips and any story that featured them. However, ultimately, when I worked with Rita Ciresi at 2 Bridges Review, she accepted the story noting that I’d have to take the name out for the sake of liability. I agreed and immediately brainstormed 15-20 names that conjured up the same type of oily corn chip sound with my favorites at the top.  When I began researching those, I found Mexican restaurants, East and West coast chips companies, vegan chips, and weight loss companies, until I finally landed on Gornitos. While I’d seen different writers debate whether or not to use companies for the sake of verisimilitude, I never expected to have to change it for liability purposes.

Michael Noll

I cringed at the fact that the narrator eats ten bags of chips a day. I mean, I love to eat and I can pretty easily eat way too much food, but that is a lot of chips. It’s an interesting thing for the narrator to know about herself—she seems aware of her own actions yet also unable to change them. That seems like it would be a difficult balance to find. How did you make her aware but not so aware that the reader wouldn’t believe that she was still stuck in a job she felt was beneath her?

Christine Grimes

Two for lunch, two for dinner, a few in the afternoon? Nope, you’re right. That is a ton of chips. One of things that fascinates me about people are the disconnects they are able to have in their own lives. That’s certainly one of the things I wanted to explore with this character. She’s overweight, unhappy, and stuck, but doesn’t see that eating all of these bags, and even logging more tastings than she’s supposed to, could be detrimental. And she’s proud of her work and her work ethic, even though she shows up late and sabotages her boss. So I tried to illustrate her goals and dreams, the reality of her life, and the disconnect between the two. That was something I really wanted to capture – the ways in which we are woefully short of the visions we keep of ourselves. Of course, it’s easier to see in others, particularly people who might seem so different from ourselves.

July 2015

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

An Interview with Katherine Fawcett

25 Jun
Katherine Fawcett's debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett’s debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett is a Canadian writer living in Pemberton, British Columbia. Her short fiction has been published in Wordworks, Event, Freefall, subTerrain, and Other Voices, and her plays have been performed by several community theatre groups. She teaches music at the Whistler Waldorf School, plays violin with the Sea to Sky Orchestra, and fiddle whenever possible. Her debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, includes stories about banshees, mermaids, and half-feral boys coming of age.

To read “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett and an exercise on increasing tension by shifting gears, click here. In this interview, Fawcett discusses writing fables, humor mixed with horror, and Stephen King’s Night Shift.

Michael Noll

When I read the story’s final line, I laughed and gasped at the same time. In a way, the story is structured like a well-told joke. The end is almost like a punchline. How did you find this structure? Did it simply occur to you as you wrote, or did you have the ending in mind when you began the story?

Katherine Fawcett

I’m delighted that the ending made you laugh and gasp. I do enjoy going for goosebumps. I think the horror of inevitability is really powerful. To be funny and devastating at the same time reflects the inescapable reality of being human.

The structure of this particular story did fall into place as I wrote it. I knew it was a fable, and that in telling it the loss of the girl would have to somehow come around again. But no, I didn’t plan the ending in advance. When I neared the ending, I had no choice in how to finish.

Michael Noll

I also love the quick pacing. This is something I’m seeing a lot of lately, in stories by Sheila Heiti, Amelia Gray, and Dina Guidubaldi, to name a few writers. The stories don’t really descend into scene and stay there. Instead, they zoom along over a series of events, as this story does, with the result being a story that feels a bit like a fable. Does this seem like a fair description of the story? What attracts you to this form?

Katherine Fawcett

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O'Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O’Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

I recently read Heather O’Neill’s collection Daydreams of Angels, another Canadian author whose short stories often trip quickly along with gorgeous images and snapshots of events. I like how this style can feel intense–almost dream-like. I think the short story lends itself to this form very well. I love a story that is organized in such a way that readers feel they are swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine with every turn of the page.

Michael Noll

This story was originally published as part of a series titled “Thrilling Tales of Torment.” As such, I guess it’s a kind of horror story, which makes sense—after all, two children die. But it’s a peculiar kind of horror story in that it’s funny. (At least, I laughed at the end.) But it’s also a weird kind of humor since the thing that is funny is also horrible, and so as I was laughing, I was also feeling a lot of empathy for the characters, especially the boy. Was this story intended as horror? Is that a genre you’re drawn to?

Katherine Fawcett

To be honest, I didn’t write this as a “Thrilling Tales of Torment” story, but when I was asked to submit a Halloween story, it was the most suitable one I had at the time. It certainly isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but you’re right–a couple of dead kids is a pretty nasty and no one wants to laugh at that, so it’s kind of a blend of bad, distasteful humour and weird, funny horror.

I do like reading horror–although I sometimes find it too disturbing to read at night. The first short story collection I ever read was Stephen King’s Night Shift. I must have been 11 or so–I remember being terrified and thrilled, and sharing the stories around campfires to scare my friends.

Michael Noll

One review of the book uses the term “fabulist” and compares you to Kelly Link, the incomparable giant of the weird stories that seem to now officially fall under that label. What do you think of that term: fabulist? It’s relatively new, and so it seems that the definition of what belongs is a bit fuzzy. Does it seem like an appropriate category for your work?

Katherine Fawcett

I am honored to be spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link. I’d never defined myself as such before, but if the Link is a fabulist and NPR says I’m following in her tradition, then yup, you can call me a happy fabulist too. The word is appealing because it is like “fantastic” and “beautiful” and “marvelous” going out for drinks together.
But to properly answer your question, I looked it up and found out that fabulist has two meanings:

  1. Someone who recounts fables.
  2. A liar.

I suppose all fiction is lying by definition, but a fable is something that brings to light a truth. So yes, lying to find truth would be a great category for my work.

I read somewhere that fiction is simply a craft that arranges letters and spaces and punctuation in a way that makes us empathize with the fake struggles of pretend people. It seems to me the whole process of categorization (fabulist, magical realist, satirist, sci-fi writer etc) has more to do with marketing than actually sitting down and telling stories–lying to find truth. But if lumping me into a category will pique readers’ interest, lump away.

June 2015

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

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

24 Feb
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho's story, "Madrid," is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” was published by StoryFront and is included in his new collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his new collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter, and the dialogue that carries the moment is quick and affecting. You can buy the story for $1 here.

How the Story Works

The story is about a son who is beginning to realize how much he misses his father. The reason for this realization? His father has been kidnapped by members of a Mexican cartel, and the son (the narrator) has fled to Madrid with his wife, dog, and newborn son. At the story’s end, a moment comes when the father and son share the page. The father is not present in the traditional physical sense, but he’s there, and the two talk for a minute. (Spoiler warning, obviously, but the ending will make you want to read the entire story).

At first, they talk about nothing (parking) and share the usual gestures (a hug). The son is dumbfounded, and that disbelief is focused on something particular, the father’s feet (read the story and you’ll know why). They talk about the feet and the father’s shoes for longer than you might expect, but the details of their back-and-forth build the establish the father’s reality (at least as far as the narrator and we are concerned):

“Whose feet are they?”

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless. “To be honest with you, I’m not sure. I got them at a flea market, and I preferred not to know all the details about the previous owner, if you know what I mean.”

The strangeness of the dialogue (feet bought at a flea market) tells us how to read the scene: real but not real.

Next, the characters say what they need to say: “I miss you” and “I’m so proud of you.”

Then comes the white hot center—at least for this scene. A story often has several hot spots. The son says this: “You could have told me that before.” What makes this moment interesting is how quickly it passes. The narrator feels regret at saying this, and then the conversation shifts and they talk about daily life and how to be in the world. Eventually, the father offers advice about the dog, which the son recently took to the vet. There is a connection between the dog and the father, but it’s not overplayed, and the story ends. What is important is how the scene surrounds the moment of high emotion with details that locate us physically and, on the emotional side, set and continually re-establish the tone: not too high, not too low. Just right.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a moment of high emotion, using “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho as a model:

  1. Choose the white hot center. You do this by choosing your characters and the tension between them. The characters (like real people) will have developed mechanisms for being together without getting sucked into the white hot center—the place of highest tension between them. To use another metaphor, there’s often an elephant in the room and they’ve figured out how to avoid walking into it or getting stepped on. So, your job is to uncover the elephant, the white hot center, the point of conflict. If there is more than one, you will likely craft scenes around each of them.
  2. Figure out what must be said. If the story or scene is inevitably headed toward that point of conflict, what will the characters say when it gets there? The writer and teacher Debra Monroe has said that every story what can be distilled to a phrase from a Hallmark card or a Lifetime movie, and that’s true, of Ruiz-Camacho’s story as well. “I miss you,” the son says. “I’m so proud of you,” his father says. The white hot center and the dialogue in it doesn’t need to be original, just affecting.
  3. Accept that the reader knows what is coming. A few stories manage to fool the reader, but most develop a sense of direction. The reader knows where the story is going and anticipates scenes that begin to feel inevitable. So, when those scenes arrive, rather than sneaking them into the story, set them up. Give details that locate those scenes specifically within the story. Ruiz-Camacho does this by showing the reader a white Lincoln Town Car, the exact car his father drove. He shows the car once, fleetingly, and then shows it again. As a result, when the father gets out, we’re ready for the scene that will follow.
  4. Set the tone. Start too high, and you’ll have nowhere to go. Start too low, and the reader will be bored. So, where do you start? One strategy is to present an obvious question and then deal with it in an unexpected tone. This is what Ruiz-Camacho does in the story. The son immediately looks at his father’s feet (again, read the story, and you’ll understand why), and rather than handling that question in a sad or tragic way, the father gives an answer that is both absurd and inscrutable (found them at a flea market). The result is that we’re thrown off-balance, which is a good place to be in an anticipated scene. For your scene, choose a question that must be answered or an uncertainty that must be made certain and answer it in a tone that is not less or more but different than what is expected.
  5. Write the moment. Move quickly into the moment. Don’t work your way up to it. In the case of “Madrid,” Ruiz-Camacho doesn’t even let the father finish a sentence about his feet before the son says, “I miss you.” Once the tone is set, move into the moment as fast as possible. Remember, the reader knows it’s coming and will get restless waiting for it.
  6. Get out of it. If you know what must be said, then as soon as it’s said, move on. Don’t draw out something that has accomplished what it needed to do. One approach is to move next to what the characters would talk about once they got the big stuff out of the way. How do they chitchat? How do they talk with one another when they’re relaxed and nothing is on the line. Of course, something is on the line, which is why the scene exists, but once the tension breaks, how do the characters try to revert back to their normal relationship and selves? Ruiz-Camacho lets his characters talk about daily life: parking, jobs, connections that might be useful. All of this is colored by the question of how a man and father should be, which at the center of the white hot moment that we just read. That’s the great thing about finding that emotional tension: find it, and everything else will be colored by it and made more dramatic.

Good luck.

How to Write from the Headlines

17 Feb
Jane Hawley's story, "The Suitcases of San León," tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León” tells the story of bus depot workers who must decide what to do with the suitcases of travelers murdered by the Mexican drug cartels.

In a recent interview, the late New York Times journalist David Carr was asked if cable news drove coverage of events, and he answered, in short, no. The current news cycle, he said, is so full of large, complex stories that news organizations don’t know where to look. In other words, the news is driving the news. As writers, we inhabit and absorb this same news cycle, and because of the size and savagery of some of these events, it’s tempting to incorporate the headlines into our fiction. The question is how to do it?

A terrific example of a story based on an actual news event is Jane Hawley’s “The Suitcases of San León.” The story was inspired by a narco massacre in the Mexican border city of San Fernando and, more generally, on stories about suitcases arriving at depots without their murdered owners. You can buy the story for $1 at Amazon, where it was published as part of the journal Day One.

How the Story Works

The real-life massacre in San Fernando—or any massacre, for that matter—has a two essential sets of people involved: the murderers and the victims. Focusing a story on characters based on these real-life people is possible but difficult. It involves detailed research, which may or not be possible from a safe remove. It also involves some sticky questions of ethics: Is it okay to fictionalize the lives of real people? The less historical remove the writer has from those people, the more difficult it is to answer this question.

The next level of involvement in the headline includes people with direct connections to the event but not an immediate presence at the actual massacre: the narco bosses who ordered the murders, the officials who provide cover to the narcos, the victims’ families, witnesses, the police, and the people who discovered the bodies. Generally speaking, the farther the story moves away from the immediate event, the more freedom it has to roam. An event like a massacre acts as a kind of black hole, overpowering everything around it with its gravitational pull. A story about a victim of a massacre is likely to be almost purely about the massacre. But a story about a witness or an accessory or family member can give those people lives beyond the event—but that freedom is not limitless.

A third level of involvement includes people with no direct connection but whose lives are impacted in specific ways by the massacre. When fictionalized, these are characters whose connection to the central event is thin or tangential. They are removed from it by several degrees, and, as a result, they can have problems and concerns in their lives that, to them, rival the problem that the event causes. There is inherent tension between those problems—how does the character balance them? A victim’s brother or mother or spouse will drop everything to deal with the event. But someone at a remove will not.

It is at this third level that Hawley writes “The Suitcases of San León.” The story is told from a group point of view—the “we” of the workers at the San Leon bus depot. Their connection to the massacre is indirect. When the victims were pulled off of the bus, their suitcases were not pulled off with them, and so they arrive ownerless at the depot. The workers must decide what to do with the suitcases, and when they decide, they must live with the consequences (mental, emotional, and situational) of those choices. As you read the story, you’ll notice that the narcos become a stronger presence toward the end, and their presence suggests the gravitational pull that the massacre exerts on everything around it. By setting the story at a remove from that event, Hawley gives the characters room to develop. If she had set the story closer to the actual massacre, that room might have been very difficult to create. As a result, the story might not have added complexity or depth to the headline where it began. The distance from the massacre also gives the story a chance to surprise us. We’ve all heard about the atrocities committed by narcos, but it’s likely we haven’t thought about the way those crimes alter even the most mundane aspects of Mexican life. Empty suitcases are such a great starting point for a story that it’s hard to imagine it being written about anything else.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story from a headline, using “The Suitcases of San Leon” by Jane Hawley as a model:

  1. Choose the headline. There is no shortage of news to choose from: geopolitics in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and internal politics and/or savagery in Nigeria, Mexico, and Venezuela; racial and ethnic strife in Ferguson, New York, and, most recently, in North Carolina; political unrest in, of all places, my home state of Kansas; drones; surveillance; a train derailment in West Virginia; and blizzards across the northeastern U.S. Simply choose the news you’re following the closest and that you find yourself imagining yourself into.
  2. Chart out the first level of involvement. Who bears the most immediate impact of the headline? Who is it about? Are there sides? If so, what are they?
  3. Chart out the second level of involvement. Who is connected to the news but not immediately present? Or, who is present but not at the focus of the headlines? Who are the journalists not talking to? This level often contains family members, police, witnesses—people who are among the first to react to the event.
  4. Chart out the third level of involvement. Who is not present or connected to the event/news but is impacted by it? People in this group are often going about their business, only to discover that the news has forced its way into their lives. In the case of the winter storms, most of the stories are from this level, people whose lives have been disrupted, sometimes urgently (first responders) and sometimes with unforeseen consequences (a couple on the verge of divorce but now trapped together by the snow).
  5. Choose the level for your story. To do this, you will likely need to determine how much of the headline you want to write about. Are you interested in the event itself or the way it ripples outward, effecting everyone? A lot of great fiction has been written about war, some of it from the point of view of soldiers (first level), some focusing on family members (second level), and some focusing on the people back home without relatives in the fighting (third level). Once you decide how much distance to put between your characters and the event, you can think about how the event will intrude into their lives. The closer they are, the more forcefully and overwhelmingly it will intrude. The farther they are, the more subtle its effects may be.

Once you choose the level of involvement and know how the event will sneak into the story, you may find that the story begins to write itself. You’ve given yourself something to write toward and, once the event arrives, tension to work with.

Good luck and have fun.

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