Tag Archives: writing exercises

An Interview with Christopher Brown

10 Aug

Christopher Brown is the author of the novel Tropic of Kansas, which William Gibson called “a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.”

Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas. He was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows, The Baffler, and Reckoning. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he also practices technology law.

To read an excerpt from Tropic of Kansas and an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Brown discusses writing his story from the ending, how he knew what getting hit by a rubber bullet felt like, and writing a near-future dystopian novel in the current political climate.

Michael Noll

The novel starts out with a fairly tight frame, with Sig escaping custody. We learn that the United States is led by a despotic leader, but the narrative seems less about revolution and more about individual survival. Gradually the narrative frame broadens to include revolution, and I’m curious if you always knew this would be the case. Did you know that Sig would get drawn into larger and larger events? Or did you stumble into them, along with him? 

Christopher Brown

I always knew where the story was going to go, but only a vague plan for how it would get there. The ending was the first thing I wrote. I knew who the three core characters were, and where they were going to end up, but not much beyond that. I also knew that I wanted Sig’s trajectory to follow the model traced by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book Bandits, a study across cultures and eras of how a common thief will sometimes evolve into a social bandit and then revolutionary leader.  And I knew that the story had to be found through an episodic approach, in a way that would be truer to real life and structurally similar to adventure pulps. It took a lot of work to write my way into a coherent narrative using that approach, but I think it was the right way to go

Note: Brown discusses Hobsbawm and Bandits further in this post at Criminal Element.

Michael Noll

There are a lot of fighting and battle scenes in this book. What was your approach to writing these? Did you do any research on how they might have played out?

Christopher Brown

The book aims at a speculative realism, constructed as much as possible from the material of the observed world, remixed and inverted. Most of the places the book goes mirror places I have spent substantial time in, all the characters draw from real life, and many of the physical injuries are ones I have suffered (a friend told me what it feels like to be shot with a rubber bullet).  The scenes of armed conflict and uprising draw on a mix of events from revolutions and wars that have occurred in other countries, embellished with real elements I have witnessed (including as a young journalist traveling through conflict zones and as a government lawyer overseeing federal law enforcement efforts), all put together in a way that tries to repurpose the material of American action stories toward more emancipatory ends.

Michael Noll

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the major plot points in the novel hinges on the way people who oppose the government are able to secretly communicate via television. Was this something you made up, or did you discover this as a possibility that could (or actually does) exist?

Christopher Brown

There’s a romance to those analog broadcast technologies, things that once embodied the future and now seem part of a static-ridden past. They have a cool aesthetic that I was intuitively drawn to, boosted by the idea of popular repossession of technologies of institutional power. But the networks I imagined also drew on real technologies I once worked with, at a software company that developed early interactive television systems that could transmit digital information over analog TV networks.  So again, an effort at speculative realism.

Michael Noll

Anyone who reads this book will be struck by parallels with our current state of political affairs. But I’m guessing this novel was written long before our current president had even declared his candidacy. When you began revising in preparation for publication, did you give much thought to these parallels, or did you try to treat the novel’s world as its own creation?

Christopher Brown

I started the book in earnest in early 2012 and finished it in November of 2014. At the time, I thought some of the political elements of the story were so implausible that I sat on it for a while, sending it only to a few colleagues. But everything in the book drew on things I saw in the world around me, in the same way that our current political realities reflect deep currents that have been developing for years. For example, as I wrote in an essay earlier this year, the idea of the businessman-politician running the country like a company has been around for decades. Many science fiction novels that get called prescient are just good examples of naturalistic inversions whose “futures” really just emphasize things evident in the present. During editorial revisions last year, I was obviously aware of current events, but focused more on drawing out the ecological themes that had worked their way to the surface, and fine-tuning the story I already had. The world of the book is an imagined one, almost like another character, and the challenge is letting that world be true to itself within the confines of the story, while at the same time striving for fidelity for deeper truths.

For further reading about the book, some recent essays by Christopher

Dystopia is Realism”—LitHub, July 10, 2017

You’re Fired—Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO”—NewCoShift, March 15, 2017

The Persistence of American Folklore in Fantastic Literature”—Tor.com, July 13, 2017

The Big Idea Behind Tropic of Kansas”—Scalzi’s Whatever, July 13, 2017

The Summer of Living Dangerously”—Sirens of Suspense, July 2017

August 2017

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

An Interview with Owen Egerton

27 Jul

Owen Egerton is the writer/director of two films and the author of four books, most recently Hollow.

Owen Egerton is an author, performer, and filmmaker. He is the writer/director of the psychological horror Follow and the author of several books including The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, Everyone Says That at the End of the World and the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and newly released Hollow from Soft Skull Press. He also wrote and starred in the Zach Scott produced play The Other Side of Sleep. As a screenwriter he has written for Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney and many others. Egerton is also the host of public radio’s The Write Up and the reading series One Page Salon. Egerton and his wife, poet Jodi Egerton, wrote the writing craft book This Word Now. 

To read an excerpt from Egerton’s new novel Hollow and an exercise on learning what your characters believe, click here.

In this interview, Egerton discusses writing characters with expertise, writing uncomfortable stories in a way that readers will want to keep reading, and finding a novel’s ending.

Michael Noll

The narrator of the novel, Oliver Bonds, is a former University of Texas religious studies professor. It’s a profession that works really well because of the space it gives you to talk about faith and religion in a way that might not be possible for a layperson. But it also presents the challenge of creating a convincing portrayal of someone with a very particular and high-level skill set. It’s the same problem faced by many action movies, including Bond movies (Denise Richards a nuclear physicist because she says the word plutonium), and most recently in the film Arrival (She’s a linguist because she lectures on language in a classroom). How did you approach making Oliver seem like a real academic without getting so far into the weeds of his field of study that non-academic readers would get lost?

Owen Egerton

I think one of the biggest dangers of creating an expert in fiction is making that person too intelligent. Or at least too knowledgeable about any particular subject. I think we’ve all seen a scientist character who can’t think of anything but test tubes and numbers and speaks in scientific and mathematical formulas. But that’s not a person we meet in the real world. Turns out most academics are people—just people—who have read a few more books on one particular subject than the rest of us. For me, the challenge was to allow the subject that Oliver is an expert in to organically inhabit his thinking and his conversation. For example, to describe a pretty morning I might think in my head of the Beatles lyric, but Oliver might think of a Tillich quote. The fun part is an expert knows things that I have to look up. But of course, that’s not always enough to help him on his journey.

Michael Noll

Oliver thinks a lot about the Book of Job, and this novel parallels the basic structure of that story: a good man gets everything taken away from him through no fault of his own. At one point, Oliver explains that the book in the Bible is actually a theological treatise wrapped in a very old tale, which is so much of the middle of that book is Job arguing with people about how to think about what has happened to him. Did you think of Hollow as having a similar structure–using a story premise that we’re familiar with in order to work out the implications of that premise?

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

Yes and no. The book does loosely follow the structure of Job. But it also starts with an invitation to make a journey into the Hollow Earth. So it doesn’t quite start out in a “Oh I know where this is going” way. But I do think we have a prevalent story in our culture that suffering has a reason—the myth of redemptive suffering. We know the storyline. A character suffers; the character finds new love, new community, or a new calling; The character finds his way out of suffering and is stronger and wiser for it. (I love these kind of stories. They have me weeping in the theater each Oscar season). Perhaps that’s the fairy tale that Hollow plays within and subverts. It’s a good question. I’m not sure my answer does it justice.

Michael Noll

The novel contains moments that are hard to read because they portray some of our worst fears, like the death of a child. That particular fear is actually a common trope in film. Without dead or endangered children, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have a career anymore. But your novel isn’t about revenge (or it is, perhaps, but revenge is difficult when you can’t identify a culprit), and this, I think, makes the premise even more challenging to a reader. We’ll accept a scene with a dead child if we get to partake in the emotional catharsis of vengeance, but what happens to the audience experience when vengeance is taken away? How did you approach keeping the reader from walking away from the novel simply because it was too emotionally taxing?

Owen Egerton

I was worried about making a story that was just too uncomfortable to read, too unpleasant or too dark for dark’s sake. I explored the works of better writers than me to see how they manage writing tragic events and used some of those techniques in my book. For example, the most painful event of the book is Oliver losing his son. That was hard to write, and I knew it would be painful to read. Chronologically that event happens three years before the major action of the story. This gives us a little space, a little distance. And although we know about the child’s death throughout the book, we don’t read about the details until nearly halfway through. This gives the reader a little time to know the narrator, to feel the world, and perhaps trust the author that this painful event is not simply gratuitous or for spectacle sake.
The most important part, for me, was the use of humor. Humor arrived on the page a number of times and saved my ass. For me, the character of Lyle came just when I needed him and saved this book. Humor helps lighten the dark moments but it also highlights the humanity.
You make a great point about revenge. Revenge, when we watch it or experience it, usually feels good. It offers an action to go along with these deep trouble and emotions. It whispers to us that something can be done, even when nothing can be done.

Michael Noll

The novel is about a character’s sense of a moral universe being stripped away. It’s the same thing that the Lost Generation writers were struggling with—how to live when everything you believed in turns out to be untrue. Unlike, say, a story about monsters rampaging through a city, your premise isn’t easily concluded. How did you approach the ending to this novel?

Owen Egerton

I started Hollow with a question. What’s at the center of everything? Is it love? Is it apathy? Is it nothing? Could it be that the concepts of compassion and justice are just human inventions and not essential to reality? These questions have been asked by wiser minds than mine. I knew I did not want to end with the pat Hallmark answer. I knew I did not want to end with nihilism. And, of course, answers come and go, and it’s the questions we return to again and again that shape our lives. But I did come to an answer in the book’s climax. A thought about what makes up the heart of this world that is so tragic and so beautiful. I don’t think I could word it here very well. It’s taken me a whole book just to get to those sentences.
I did want to end the book with compassion. Compassion in our own suffering and in the suffering of others. Compassion keeps the light on.

July 2017

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

An Interview with Nicky Drayden

20 Jul

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods, named a Wall Street Journal and Barnes & Noble pick for best read of the year so far.

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shimmer and Space and Time. She is a systems analyst and resides in Austin, Texas, where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required.

To read an excerpt from The Prey of Gods and an exercise on foreshadowing later novel developments, click here.

In this interview, Drayden discusses throwing together random characters from her sketch file, creating consequences for fantastical elements, and getting readers to identify with characters.

Michael Noll

There are so many different characters in the book—and so many different aspects from various types of science fiction and fantasy genres. Were all of the characters and all of the elements (gods, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation) present from the beginning, or did you discover some of them as you wrote?

Nicky Drayden

Right before I started writing The Prey of Gods, I picked six random characters from my character sketch file and stuck them in a setting together. I had a pretty good idea of what would happen in each character’s first chapter, so many of the plot and genre elements were at least seeded in my mind, but I had no outline beyond that. Weaving together these disparate storylines was one of the most challenging parts of writing the novel. But it was a lot of fun, too.

Michael Noll

In the same vein, there are so many wild things that happen in the book—which is one of the traits that reviewers have remarked upon, favorably. In a way, the novel reminds me of when I used to teach creative writing to third-graders, and every story they wrote gradually added new layers: dinosaurs, ninjas, robots, meteors, etc. At a certain point, their stories weren’t really stories anymore but accumulations of interesting things. Your novel is like that in a way–it’s full of scenes that seem more imaginative and interesting than the last one, but never collapses under the weight of so many cool elements. Was it ever difficult to maintain an air of plausibility? Did you find yourself cutting scenes or parts because they seemed like one thing too many? 

Nicky Drayden

Wow, I would totally read a story about dinosaur robot ninjas in a meteor shower! Yeah, I probably walked right up to that line of “too much” and spit over it. I never questioned if I was throwing in too much spectacle, but I did spend a lot of time setting up consequences to the fantastical elements to make them more palatable. Mind control can be seen as your standard wish fulfillment scenario, but when you learn that every time Muzi control someone’s mind, he gets imprinted with that person’s darkest memory, all of a sudden readers are like….ohhhhh. The plot is outrageous and fantastical, but the consequences of those fantastical elements are real and relatable. At least, that’s what I was aiming for.

Michael Noll

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

The basic premise of the novel is eye-catching, but we don’t really learn what it is until about 60 pages in—and that one short lab scene is just one part of the overall plot. One of the things that you sometimes hear as a writer is that the plot should kick off early. Did you ever experiment with front loading the plot in a different way?

Nicky Drayden

Establishing six different characters takes a bit of time, and basically you have the equivalent of asking your reader to start six different books. This requires a reader to put tremendous trust in the author, which can be tough with a debut novel. If you start off with interesting characters in sticky situations, I think you can get away with quite a bit before readers start wondering when the plot is going to kick in. A hallucinogenic drug. A secretly sentient AI. A nail tech giving magical manicures, and a little girl who discovers she can fly. You get all that in the first four chapters, which gives you a taste of the strangeness to come. And the upside of having six characters is that almost every reader will be able to identify strongly with at least one of them.

July 2017

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

Give Readers a Sneak Peak at the Wild Action to Come

18 Jul

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

As a novelist, you will one day inevitably be required to write a query letter or pitch an agent in person, and you’ll quickly realize how important it is to get straight to whatever element of your story can fascinate and intrigue in a sentence or two. It’s an instructive experience because it reminds you about the power of story and what makes people pick up a book in the first place. But you’ll also quickly learn that a great pitch or query is not necessarily accompanied by a great novel. Or, the skills for one are not the skills for the other. Even a novel with the most amazing concept and premise in the world needs to build compelling, rich characters within that premise.

A great example of character building in a novel with a wild premise is The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden. You can read an excerpt from the novel at Tor.com.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a futuristic South Africa, where personal robots called alphies tend to their owners and the government harnesses technological advances to raise the standard of living. We follow six different characters as this world starts to come apart. We’re introduced to one of them, Sidney Mazwai, in this scene. She works at a nail salon, and one of her wealthiest clients has walked in, preparing for a fundraiser for a politician whose family her own has known for centuries.

“Centuries, you say?” Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hear a long and convoluted story about how Mrs. Donovan’s family came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War with intentions of raping the country of its precious metals and gems. Not that Sydney needs a refresher history course since she’d actually lived through it nearly two hundred years ago, but it’ll give her a chance to do the thing that’s the other half of getting those fat tips. Sydney grabs a small bottle of organic botanical oils and squeezes a drop onto each cuticle, then she rubs as Mrs. Donovan drones on incessantly about her lineage. Warmth buds inside that empty space right behind Sydney’s navel, and it travels up– prickling like the skitter of centipede legs–through her chest, over her shoulders, and down her arms, and then finally into the pads of her fingertips which glow as subtly as the sun peeking through gray winter clouds. Mrs. Donovan’s nails lengthen, just a few centimeters—enough to notice, but not so much to raise suspicions. Sydney then rubs out all signs of imperfection and hangnails.

By the time she gets to the left hand, Sydney’s stomach is cramping, but it’s nothing a couple of aspirin won’t take care of. When she’s done, she reaches into her alphie’s bottom compartment and pulls out a bottle of clear coat, keeping it palmed safely out of sight. The empty spot inside her grows as she reaches into Mrs. Donovan’s rambling thoughts and pulls out the shade of the dress she’ll be wearing tonight. Sydney clenches her fist, envisions a nice complimentary color, and opens her hand to reveal a feisty shade of mauve.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Mrs. Donovan says as the first coat goes on. “I swear, Precious, the colors you pick for me are always spot on. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”

In this scene, we’re introduced to various aspects of Sidney’s life and personality. She’s on the bottom end of a class and colonial divide, she can create a facade that hides the resentment she feels over this divide, she has magical powers, and those powers take a physical toll on her when used.

Now, imagine how else those aspects of her character could have been revealed. We learn, not long after this scene, that Sydney’s powers extend far beyond cuticle manipulation. She is, in fact, the “ancient demigoddess hell-bent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters” mentioned on the novel’s back cover. But you wouldn’t know that from this passage. Instead of devouring the woman, she does her nails. It’s the opposite of what you’d talk about in a query letter or pitch. But it’s essential to building the novel.

Novels require pacing, whereas pitches do not. A novel must build up to its wildest moments, and the distance between the mundane and the wild also creates mystery: how are the mundane and wild connected in this one character?

It might be tempting to cut out mundane elements of your story, but a novel without quotidian scenes won’t work. The key is to hint at the wild stuff in the middle of the mundane, which is what Drayden does in this nail salon scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hint at the wildest parts of our story, using The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden as a model:

  1. Identify the wild part of your story and locate it in a character. This applies even if your character isn’t magic, like Drayden’s. Every novel has a dramatic scene in which a character acts out of passion and desire. The nature of the act will vary, depending on the novel, but it’s there. It’s probably what led you to write the novel in the first place. So, know what it is and make it something that exists internally in the character. Don’t rely exclusively on external events to drive the action; it will lead to a boring character whose actions feel unconvincing. In other words, what is your character capable of doing?
  2. Give your character a daily grind. Drayden makes Sydney go to work at a nail salon. In many novels, work often supplies this daily grind. So do family, friends, and household chores. Find something that your character does in a thoughtless, mechanical way. In itself, this helps build character because we learn what your character is dissatisfied with. But it also provides a way to surprise the reader, who will sense the character’s boredom with the act and so won’t see the wild part coming.
  3. Build hints of the wild part into the grind. This almost always takes the form of quiet rebellion. Your character pushes back against the grind (and the people who embody it) in ways that help your character (either by giving them the satisfaction of rebellion or, as in Sydney’s case, benefiting them in some tangible way). This rebellion is where you’re really crafting the character. What hints of the character’s wildness are present in that rebellion? How does she conceal it? Both the wildness and the deception will likely become essential to the character and provide building blocks as you move into the more dramatic parts of the novel.

The goal is to build a character and world with an eye toward the sort of dramatic action that might appear in a query letter or pitch.

Good luck.

An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

15 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which has been called “auspicious,” “complex,” and “caustically funny.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. She’s the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and her wer work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, Green Mountains Review and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other prizes. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

To read an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Greenidge discusses describing characters, acknowledging the role of power in race, and finding an agent who appreciated her novel.

Michael Noll

I love the way you introduce Charlie. A character says that “it’s best we all meet Charlie now,” but the introduction isn’t given to the reader in a direct way. First, we see the place where Charlie lives. Then, we’re told that he’s sitting beside a fern and that a man kneels beside him—and then we’re introduced to the man. Only after this do we get to see Charlie. I love this approach because it takes the weight off his character. It’s as if the novel is saying that Charlie is important, yes, but he’s less important the everything around him. Was this introduction to Charlie simply how it arrived on the page? Or did you write it with a particular goal in mind?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

I didn’t want this novel to be about chimpanzees. That isn’t, to me, what this novel is about or what it is concerned with. So, it was important to let the reader know this from the beginning. Part of it was just keeping the reader’s interest in that first chapter. Part of it was also me, as a writer, not being ready to engage with the character of Charlie yet. All of those things went into that first introduction to the character.

Michael Noll

I also love the description of Dr. Paulson, in particular this:

When she parted her lips to grin, behind her white, white teeth, I caught a glimpse of her tongue. It was the yellowest, craggiest, driest tongue I had ever seen. It surely did not belong in that mouth, in her, and I shot a look at my mother, who widened her eyes, who gave one quick shake of her head that told me to ignore it.

It’s a monstrous trait, that tongue. In an interview with Lambda Literary, you said that you love the grotesque and the mechanics of horror stories, and the tongue certainly seems to fit. It’s also a detail that turns Dr. Paulson into a kind of monster. In that same interview, you talked about writing fully-developed characters, and so I’m curious how a detail like this works in terms of character development. Did you worry that giving characters monstrous characteristics would make them more difficult to develop? Or is the monstrosity part of that complexity? It’s certainly part of what makes the book so compelling.

Kaitlyn Greenidge

That was more a private joke with myself, while I was writing. I had a teacher in school when I was a kid who used to eat chalk. He carried a stick of it in his back pocket and during class, he would bring it out and lick it. His tongue was pebbled and yellow. And, no one ever mentioned it! It was like, is no one else seeing this, how disgusting it is? So, when I was writing, I just wanted to include that detail as a reminder and a joke with some younger part of myself.

I love the grotesque but it’s very rare that I recognize it as initially repulsive. It takes a very specific visual to repulse me. But most things that people find grotesque, I just like to look at and think about.  I think human bodies are just endlessly fascinating and beautiful looking, even when they have yellow, craggy tongues and even when they are licking chalk.

Michael Noll

The characters are put into situations that highlight their blackness and make them objects of fascination and study. For example, Laurel likes to say of her childhood in Maine that she was the only black person in a one-hundred mile radius. The town of the novel is segregated, and the school that the girls attend is mostly white. At the Toneybee Institute, the family is made a literal object of study, and several reviewers have pointed out connections to the Tuskegee Institute. There’s a sense, then, that the Freemans’ weird situation isn’t, actually, so weird. When you began to sketch out the plot of the novel, did you have ideas or themes in mind? Did you, in other words, have something you wanted to say? Or did you invent the premise and plot first and discover what it had to say about the world?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

I wanted to write about race in post-Civil Rights America. Which is a very big and wide topic. But I wanted to talk about the ways in which we don’t really have a way to describe living race right now, because we are so averse in America to talking about power.

I just read an editorial on Al Jazeera, about how “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless term. It’s an old argument, one that anyone familiar with that debate can recognize. Basically, culture is universal, all cultures borrow from each other, it was 19th century racists who popularized the idea of distinct, cultural productions in the first place so why do we cling to that idea?

All those historical facts are true, but they are missing that question of power. What does it mean that I probably won’t be hired at many places because my hair is in dreadlocks but an upper-middle class white man could wear the same hairstyle to work and be considered a wonderful iconoclast? That is a question of power, that those who go on and on about how it’s all the same never really have an answer for that.

I grew up in the 90s, when so much talk about race was about “diversity”, how everyone everywhere came from a different culture so let’s all flatten it out. The Irish potato famine is the same pain as the Holocaust is the same pain as American slavery so let’s just not talk about any of it. That is ludicrous, of course, and not how memory or history or culture or politics works. But it’s a convenient idea to cling to in order to avoid really talking about all the ways our wounds are different, and how they are serving, or not serving, us well.

It’s similar to that self-serving, smug, and ultimately meaningless phrase “Everyone is racist.” Usually, the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is “so don’t worry about it/don’t try to talk about it.” We have to get to a point where we have another way to talk about racism and white supremacy beyond just calling people out. Calling people and institutions out is a powerful tool, but we also have to get to a point where we can have conversations past naming someone or a practice or an institution as racist. What does it mean to work to change an institution? Knowing that we are all imperfect, that we will never live in a utopia, that there will always be bias, that over 500 years of racist thinking and oppression cannot simply be erased over night? How do we get to a point where we get real gains, and keep them for another generation to build on? One of the heartbreaking things about studying race post-the Civil Rights era is how many things have been lost, even in the last 8 years, how much we’ve lost. It’s terrifying. So how do we begin to keep what we’ve got and what’s working?

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Daniel Jose Older about his essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” He said that he loves books that multitask and that demand multiple things of the reader. So, for example, he’s written Half-Resurrection Blues, an urban fantasy novel about ghosts, monsters, and paranormal detectives, but it’s also a novel that has a lot to say about issues of race. Kiese Laymon’s Long Division does something similar: it contains time travel and an absurdist vocabulary contest, and it’s very much a book about race. In his case, he struggled to find an appreciative editor and publisher for that book. Your book also seems like it’s multi-tasking. Did you ever think, Uh oh, I’m taking on too much? Was it ever suggested to you that the novel contained too many different elements—or elements that seem too different to some readers?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Never by my agent or my editor. When I sent it out to some agents, that was definitely a response. But Carrie read it and got it immediately. My editor Andra read it and got it as well. That was most important to me: that the people I worked with on it understood that it is a book that is “multi-tasking”, as you put it. That is a natural place for me to read from. My older sister was in college in the early to mid nineties, just in time to be hit with the full bloom of post-modern theory. She brought some of that stuff home to me and tried to talk to me about it. Like, I remember, she rented The Celluloid Closet and Paris is Burning for me when I was in elementary and middle school and we’d watch them together while she babysat me. And so, I grew up reading things for multiple meanings at a really early age—not because I was some genius, but because I was lucky enough to have an older sibling to say, “Hey, you can read things this way.” It was great: like discovering a secret code. It also meant that I could indulge in reading “low” culture books and avoid the classics, because I could always look for (and invent in my imagination) that subtext. I like books that do that and I always wanted to write one.

First published in April 2016

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

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

30 May
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

An Interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

25 May

A review in Vogue called Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir a “true crime masterpiece.”

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named an Indie Next Pick and one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Buzzfeed, BookRiot, and the Huffington Post as well as a must-read for May by Goodreads, Audible.com, Entertainment Weekly, and Real Simple. The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

To read an exercise on giving a character description context, inspired by Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoirclick here.

Michael Noll

The book took ten years to write—and over that ten years, you inevitably grew and changed as a person. I often find when I read work that I wrote years ago that I want to totally rewrite it. Did you do any of that with this book? I’m thinking of a moment like the one where you write, “When I began writing this story I thought it was because of the man on the tape” but then go on to write, “But I think now that I write because of Lorilei.” Did you have to, at times, resist the temptation to rewrite older sections so that they fit the sense of things that existed at that moment in your mind?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Oh, I rewrote this book so many times! That’s just the way I work. It’s a quirk of the book that though the idea’s been ten years in the making, and I’m been flat-out working on this conception of it for the past seven years, about half the book was written in the last year before I turned it in to my publisher. The way I thought about shaping the book was that while there’s a consistent narrator, she’s not narrating from a place where she has figured it all out already. She knows approximately where she’s going—the work I did before this draft let me know that—but there’s still a lot to figure out. So she’s telling herself a story about the past—both her past and what she understands and imagines from the records about Ricky Langley’s past—to try to understand why she’s so drawn to this story. Joseph Epstein calls personal narrative “the genre of discovery,” and that’s always felt true to me. The narrator is telling herself and the reader the stories of the past to try to discover the hold they have over her—and the structure of the book is meant to dramatize or re-enact that discovery, to induce that experience in the reader.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the sections about Ricky and his family. I can imagine how even a small detail like “Alicide driving the whole way back like a dog with his tail between his legs” could prove problematic from a journalistic perspective, prompting questions like “Did someone say this about him? How did you know?” How much license did you take in fleshing out scenes that must have occurred.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The book is written from research conducted on some 30,000 pages of court records and other documents, and at first, when I started writing from that research, I tried to do so in a more straightforwardly journalistic way. But there were several problems with that. First, the records contradict themselves in many places. They have holes and ellipses. In many cases, the legal narratives elided the contradictions, gliding right over them into a pretense of certainty—yet in my telling, I wanted to actually highlight the ellipses, and highlight that the legal narrative was constructed. Second, when I read the records, I found them incredibly vivid. I couldn’t help but see the scenes unfold in front of me. I decided that I need a more active narrator who was explicitly telling herself this story and could highlight imagining and speculate and muse on discrepancies. For example, in the scene you’re referencing, Ricky Langley’s father, Alcide, is driving. I begin the scene this way, talking about the car: “I imagine the station wagon my parents had when I was a child, but that was the early 1980s, so subtract, now, the faux-wood paneling, the power steering.” It was very important to me that the reader understand that I was telling myself a story based on the records of the past. The book is a record of one mind—mine—trying to piece the past together into a story. So the imagining is only done in service of that aim, to try to put the pieces together. That means no invented events or dialogue, just taking what’s already in the records and trying to imagine them into color, the way we all do when we hear or read something that feels real to us. As it says in the source note that precedes the text: the book became a story not just about what happened in the past, but even more than that, about the stories we make from it. It’s a true crime book and a memoir, yes—but it’s also a story about how we tell ourselves stories.

Michael Noll

This is partly a coincidence of timing, but as I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the podcast S-Town, which starts with the narrow frame of a possible crime and then explodes to a much broader frame, with people and storylines that weren’t there in the beginning. Your book does something similar as it digs into the history of the people involved. How did you figure out the frame for each section of the book and what to include and what to leave out?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

The structure of this book was one of the things that took the longest. I thought about it in a couple of ways: first, I knew pretty early on that it would have to be a braid that alternated between my life and Ricky Langley’s life, if I were going to capture the way these stories had seemed linked in my subconscious. Two, those braids couldn’t strictly remain separate over the course of the book, or I wouldn’t capture the powerful sense of how entwined they sometimes became in my mind—I wouldn’t capture the sense of being haunted that so drove me. And finally, I knew that in a book that’s largely about the way we make stories out of the past, and which concerns two crimes—Jeremy Guillory’s murder and my grandfather’s abuse of me and y siblings—stories about which have already been told many different ways, I had to have a structure that would allow me to tell and re-tell and complicate the telling of the same events without losing forward my momentum. I thought about suspense as though it were a baton in a relay race—which strand of the book was carrying it at any given moment, and how could I hand it off between sections?

Michael Noll

You’re going on tour for this book, which makes me curious how you’ll read from it. It’s one thing, I suppose, to write about painful personal details from the safety of your home and desk, but it might be quite another to read from those sections in front of strangers. How do you handle the emotional aspect of reading from this book?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

One of the good things about how long this book took me to write is that I had many years to get used to reading from it. And to my surprise, I found that I absolutely love giving readings. After so many years of working, as you say, alone at my desk, it’s such a gift to bring these stories to people and experience the emotional connection that happens when you share your story. Yes, there are parts of the book that can feel vulnerable to share. For those, reading the audiobook of The Fact of a Body let me practice. But I’m mindful that we all have private stories hidden away inside of us, and if I can offer mine forth to help create connection between people—well, isn’t that the role of the writer?

May 2017

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

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