Tag Archives: story plot

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.

Advertisements

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.

%d bloggers like this: