Tag Archives: Tenth of December

George Saunders on Narrative Pace

7 Feb

George Saunders, author of the new story collection, “Tenth of December.” The title story inspired this writing exercise.

A recent headline in The New York Times Magazine announced, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Such praise may be news to many readers, but for the dedicated followers of Saunders’ stories and essays it only confirms the obvious. Pick up a new book of stories by any promising young writer, and you’ll likely find the influence of Saunders’ first two story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia.

After reading “Tenth of December,” you, too, may be wondering, how you can write like George Saunders. Though he is on tour for his new book, Saunders took a moment to discuss his approach to writing. He focused on the question of how to balance narrative voice with story clarity.

“My method,” Saunders wrote, “is to write more than I need and then radically prune back, vis the criteria that there is a clock ticking during internal monologue, and so you can’t just yap it up – it all has to be shaped and fast and serve a purpose.”

So, how fast should the internal monologue move? How long can you spend in a narrator’s head before moving the story along?

“It’s nice if the time spent in-head is somewhat mimetic of outside events,” Saunders wrote. For instance, if “90 pages [pass] while the character walks from point A to point B five feet away, [that’s}not so mimetic.”

Given this advice, here’s a quick exercise that can help determine how fast or slow your narrative should move:

  • What is your story’s clock? If a timer is set in the first page, when will it ring? In the case of “The Tenth of December,” the timer rings twice: once when the boy reaches the pond and again when the man reaches the house. Ask yourself: Does my story have a clock? If so, can you hear it ticking in every page? Even a quick reference to the clock can help create a sense of urgency in the reader.

To learn more about George Saunders’ approach to writing, check out this recent appearance on The Colbert Report and this interview with The New Yorker. You can also watch Saunders read from his work and answer questions at Front Porch Journal To find another writing exercise based on his story, click here.

February 2013

Simple Stories, Complex Worlds

4 Feb

George Saunders’ story collection, “Tenth of December,” includes the story discussed here.

George Saunders is not only an amazing writer. He’s a guru. People talk about him with the reverence of pilgrims returning from a visit with the man at the top of the mountain. His stories have the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time—laughing at their absurdity (dead aunt’s reanimated corpse encourages her nephew to show his—ahem—at the Hooters-like restaurant where he waits tables) and crying because the stories reveal a humanity so fresh and true that our perception of the world is deepened. Reading a George Saunders story can be like putting on glasses for the first time.

So let’s say this now: no writing exercise can make you as wise as George Saunders. You can, however, learn how he structures a story, introduces a character, constructs a scene, writes dialogue, or describes a dog. In other words, you can build a toolbox of George-Saunders wrenches and use those wrenches in your own work. If you are wise or smart or imaginative—or even if you’re not—you might write a pretty good story. Maybe an awesome one.

Even if you don’t, you still get to appreciate and spend time with a great story.

So, to kick off this blog, I want to begin with one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. It was originally published in The New Yorker, and you can find it here.

How the Story Works

Here are the two best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.

  • Every story should be easily explained. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Boy gets on raft, floats south on river with an escaped slave. Hamlet: Man kills king; prince must kill man. These summaries barely touch the true nature of these classics, and that is the point. When the story is simple, it doesn’t need to spend a lot of time explaining and clarifying. As a writer, you want to spend your words doing interesting things, pondering interesting thoughts, being funny or poignant. You don’t want the reader asking, “Tell me again, why is Huck on the raft?”
  • Every story exists in a world. Thus, you must create a story (man murders king) and also a world for it to inhabit. This world will have rules, and its characters will have personalities, obsessions, and lives that exist outside of the story. It is these personalities, obsessions, and lives that will inform the story and give it depth. That depth is why Hamlet asks “To be or not to be” rather than “Should I stab my uncle or bash in his head?”

“Tenth of December” exemplifies this advice. Here’s the story: Man tries to freeze himself to death, and boy tries to give him a coat; but boy falls through ice on pond, so man must save boy. It’s a story rocket-bound for chicken-soup sentimentality. The reason it doesn’t get there is because of the world Saunders creates.

Let’s focus on the opening section, the voice of the boy, Robin. Though we’re dropped into his head without explanation or preface, we’re quickly given clear markers of what will happen:

  • “Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam.”
  • “Whoa, cold, dang. Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill.”
  • “Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her.”

Even though most of the narration is about Robin’s fantasy world, we already know by the end of the first page (online version) that the weather is bitterly cold, that’s he’s going to a pond, and that he’s following someone’s tracks. The clarity of the story allows Saunders to play with the boy’s voice, to allow the reader to indulge with Robin in tangents about torture at the hands of fantasy beings—and it is these indulgences which make the story great.

The Writing Exercise

It’s an easy one.

  1. Write a simple plot summary (dog bites man; man shoots dog). Try to limit the summary to less than ten words. We’re aiming for clarity.
  2. Create two characters. Give them each one trait and one desire that is related to the trait. (Dog owner: accountant who eats chocolate even though he is allergic to it; he’s having an allergy attack and needs to get to the emergency room. Man who gets bitten: stay-at-home dad whose baby cries all the time; the man is trying not to resent the baby.)
  3. Give the characters a point of connection. (In this case, it’s the dog. In the Saunders story, it’s the pond.) The connection should have a trait of its own. (Pond isn’t quite frozen; dog has three legs and boldly goes about it’s business anyway.)

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is writing the first line. If you can do these three things, you can begin a story. If you keep these three things in mind as you write, you can play with the prose and characters and have fun, which is the point. It’s why we write.

So have fun. Happy writing.

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