Tag Archives: writing exercises

Write Like Anne Enright? You Should Be So Lucky.

8 May

Write Like Anne Enright? You Should Be So Lucky” was published at Fiction Writers Review.

In seventh grade, I won a story-writing contest at my small, rural Kansas middle school. This may seem like no great shakes since there are, in any given day, more shoppers in your nearest JC Penney than were competing in that contest, yet I was proud of myself. I had beaten Ian, he of the dirty rhyming poems; Lucy, whose poem about an angel would later wow our freshman class; and Jacob, author of the first short story I ever read that was not “Gift of the Magi” (entitled “The Gig,” it was about a band getting a gig). My winning piece was sent on to the next level, sponsored, as I recall, by the American Legion. My parents seemed genuinely awed, asking how I had come up with something so wild. I hadn’t actually thought about the origin of the story’s best elements: the magic necklace, the wizard, the boy who would save the day. In horror, I realized that I had cribbed almost every detail from Chessmen of Doom or whatever John Bellairs novel I had just devoured during the daily, hour-long bus ride home. I kept this fact a secret, but every night I prayed to God (literally, because I was Catholic) that the judges would not select my story.

They did not.

Legally speaking, my story may not have been plagiarized, but to me it felt like a cheat. Imagine my surprise, then, when years later as an MFA student, a professor suggested that we retype the opening to one of our favorite novels or stories to get the feeling for the words on the page. Keep typing until your imagination takes over and makes the story your own.

“But won’t that make our work sound just like theirs?” someone asked, just as someone always asked. We all feared sounding like our idols.

Another professor in the same program told us, “You should be so lucky.” It was both a joke and meant quite seriously. We, all of us, desperately wanted to be so lucky.

Can one really learn by copying?

Read the rest of the essay at Fiction Writers Review.

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Don’t Pokémon Your Monsters: An Interview with Robert Ashcroft

12 Apr

Seven years after the Hollow War decimated Earth, only 50,000 humans fight for survival in Los Angeles. Theo Abrams is sent on a mission to destroy the enigmatic being that initiated this apocalypse.

There’s a quote that pops up now and then, usually in reference to Star Wars, though it can be applied to a lot of great films and books: Great villains believe they are the hero of the story. It’s a useful line because it forces an author to give villains their own narrative arc. At their most poorly written, villains have the same qualities as the bad guys that used to wait at the end of stages in the old Super Mario games: no context or motivation, existing only to provide a bump on the road of the hero’s journey.

There’s another danger that villainous characters run into: we see them too clearly. In so many great horror films, the monsters remain on the periphery for a long time, cloaked in shadow, glimpsed only fleetingly. When we finally do see them close up, it’s with a turn of the camera and BOOMthe monster is right in front of our faces, almost too close to take it all in. This is why villains so often wear masks; to see and know them clearly is to reduce the fear of not seeing or understanding them.

Great villains, then, often lurk just off the page, seen mostly through the hero’s anticipation and dread. Robert Ashcroft gets this in his debut novel, The Megarothke. In it, an apocalyptic war has reduced humans to a small colony in the remains of Los Angeles. The creature responsible for that war, unheard of for several years, has begun to be whispered about again. In this scene, the novel’s main character, a police officer, is talking to one of his superiors:

Looking out the window, she asked, “What do you know about the Megarothke?”

A loaded question, to be sure. The secret shifted within my stomach. It rose and lay upon my tongue. I’d long learned that no one suspected anything, but I felt the secret scream from every pore whenever the Megarothke’s name was mentioned.

Back when I’d awoken from the coma, I’d had some very definite theories. I’d been convinced that I’d witnessed the creation of the Megarothke—even aided and abetted it to a certain degree.  Unlocked it. But I learned very quickly that this sort of talk was seen as “mentally unsuitable” and would get you removed from the force.

“The Shadow King. The Spider-Creature that kidnaps kids…” I said. “The first few years he was the very incarnation of the enemy. But then he disappeared. Vanished.”

Aria nodded.

“I can’t remember the last time someone told me not to touch a cobweb,” I continued. “The question should really be, ‘What happened to the Megarothke?’ I mean, the last incident was in…what? 2047? HW3? No one’s really talked about him since.”

Of course, the Megarothke is back, and the police officer will eventually face it. The book, then, depends upon readers wanting to see that encounter, on their curiosity about the monster building and building. To that end, notice how Ashcroft keeps the details vague: The Shadow King, The Spider Creatures that kidnaps kids. These are not precise character traits so much as descriptions of the monster’s legend.

Ashcroft also introduces the suggestion that a true understanding of the monster is dangerous to one’s health, both professional and literal. Someone out there doesn’t want you to know—and even that threat is vague, which is crucial to the story. Vague threats with specific outcomes (death, end of the world as we know it) provide the opportunity for characters to solve a mystery, and it’s that search for truth that usually provides the structure for the entire book.

Robert Ashcroft has worked as a State Department contractor and was recently mobilized to serve abroad with the U.S. Army Reserve. He is trained as a cryptologic linguist (with experience in Korean and Spanish). His first novel is the dystopian military thriller The Megarothke.

In this interview, Ashcroft talks about world building, writer dialects, and the challenge of creating so much suspense that it’s difficult to give readers a pay off.

Michael Noll

The book builds an entire world (post-apocalyptic LA with only a few thousand people protected by a police force that keeps back animal/human/AI hybrid beasts trying to kill them) and also a save-the-world quest, and despite these very large elements, the novel has an intimate feeling, focusing as it does on one character and his family (even as he embarks on the quest). How did you balance the need to build the world and also craft a story that revolves around relationships?

Robert Ashcroft

Back when I was majoring in creative writing―around ten years ago―genre fiction didn’t receive as much respect as it does now. I felt like in order to “deserve” to write in science fiction/horror, I had to prove that I could use what I had learned. Stories like, “Coming Attraction” by Tobias Wolff, or “For Esmé―with Love and Squalor,” by J.D. Salinger, really left a big mark on what I wanted to do with words.

Great fiction, but especially great short fiction, has to tear at the heart of human struggle. In “Coming Attractions,” this girl tries to drag a bike out of the pool for her little brother and she can’t quite do it. The story ends with her catching her breath, laying on her back, looking up at the stars. She’s freezing. All of your senses are wrapped up in the moment. The image is crystal clear. You understand how much this bicycle means to her, to her brother, to her concept of family and responsibility. It’s no longer a bike, it’s a young girl desperately fighting to grow up and be a better person.

I would love for my science fiction to be able to approach this magic.

The main goal within the Megarothke was to make sure that any action scene included both a personal and a thematic aspect. So, in the first chapter, the final scene touches on the memory of his lost daughter and the central question of what it means to be human.

Or later, in the standoff where a Korean guy has a knife to the girl’s throat, I wanted Theo to have to struggle with questions on multiple levels: his career, his custody battle, his fear that society might accuse him of police brutality―and on top of all that, you’ve still got a life or death situation.

Michael Noll

You’re working within an established genre with a few titanic writers working in it. Aspects of it reminded me of William Gibson and others, even though it’s not space opera, reminded me of M. John Harrison’s work. How did you approach putting your mark on a story that’s been told so well so many times?

Robert Ashcroft

I’m a big fan of retyping, which helps you get a sense of punctuation and flow, but also forces you to take ownership of their vocab sets and preoccupations. Every writer has a dialect of sorts. William Gibson will mention a word like “wetware” in several different stories of Burning Chrome, and you get to see the context in which it’s introduced each time. Then there were entire passages of The Megarothke where I would retype a section of Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer, and then go back and revise my work. More than just descriptions, he’s the master of unspooling an abstract concept in a character’s head while physically tracking their motion through an equally strange landscape.

In terms of the Megarothke, while the concepts aren’t new, I wanted to juxtapose two dueling misinterpretations of Evangelical Christianity and Nietzschean philosophy. The wrong view of Christianity forsakes our current life for the afterlife. The wrong view of Nietzsche ends up sacrificing everything for the ubermensch. These both blend with the age-old science fiction question: will some new form of technology replace humanity? And should it?

I should be clear here that I really respect the overall messages of Christianity and Nietzsche, but just like with ISIS and Islam, problems are usually created by a misinformed reading of the original text.

Michael Noll

The novel features a monstrous villain who, until the end of the book, is an unseen source of fear. We’re not told what the Megarothke looks like, which sets up a challenge for the story: when the Megarothke shows up, it needs to be as monstrous and terrifying as we’ve come to expect. How did you approach creating that character?

Robert Ashcroft

This was actually really difficult for me. I probably rewrote that page of description twenty times. I read it aloud, pulled it apart, and debated with people about word choice. I vividly remember fighting to keep the word “auroch” during the early critique group meetings.

If you boil the Megarothke down to his baseball card statistics, he’s really nothing we haven’t seen in a million video games and movies. But when wrapped up with his mythology, his goals, his undefined powers, his detached cruelty―I hope that he transcends your average first-person shooter entity.

The description is also integrated with the setting: the staircase, the metal turn style, the speakers on the walls. And then you have the state of Theo, our protagonist at the same time: is he still really alive? How long was he unconscious? How close to arriving are his peers? All of these things have to be factored into the description to produce the maximum effect.

There’s a real danger, largely due to the video game and toy industry, to remove the context and seek firm definitions for any given monster. I call it the “Pokémon-ization” of characters. Each power needs a name, a range, a strength, etc. For me, this is the death of good fiction.

Michael Noll

Sections begin with quotes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. How did that book inform this one?

Robert Ashcroft

The short answer is that the Megarothke is an attempt to create the ubermensch.

But as a writer, the book means a lot more. I first read Thus Spoke Zarathustra when I was twenty, living alone in Mexico. I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know anything about Nietzsche, but I knew the book was on all the right lists. This was during a time when, even if I didn’t comprehend something, I would still power through it. Sort of like when I read Ulysses as an undergrad. I had no clue what was going on, but I knew it was important.

And, this is going to be a digression, so I apologize, but I’m going to launch into it:

I heard once, I think Glenn Gould said it, that all great art is about the distance the artist feels between himself and the world. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there are these quotes that reach out and grab you. They encourage, implore and goad you all at the same time. Things like, “Go into your loneliness,” or “They hate you because you have gone beyond.” Zarathustra is arrogant and self-loathing but also really inspiring. He hates everyone but he wants to save them. He’s not sure how, but when he gets an idea, he presents it ferociously. There’s a truth―a charisma―that’s really breath-taking.

These are things that every writer has to embrace at some point. You have to isolate yourself, to cannibalize your own personality, to go really deep, because that’s where all the marrow of the best fiction resides.

Is the Megarothke the Ubermensch? Is Theo the “last man?” Do they represent the master/slave morality, respectively? Does Mathew go through the stages of the Camel, the Lion and the Child? I don’t think it can be boiled down so simply, but I want these ideas to play out in the reader’s mind. What allegiance do we owe to a creature with far greater physical and mental capacities than ourselves? What allegiance do we owe to God? To each other?

Michael Noll

I believe I saw you write on Facebook that you worked on this novel for years, printing versions for your friends to read at times. How do this published version differ from those earlier versions? What problems did you have to solve or figure out over the course of revision?

Robert Ashcroft

I’m a huge fan of printing your own work. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars at this point just to be able to read my own writing in a paper book sized, spiral bound format. You can give it to friends. You can read it and see how the pages work. It’s really rewarding, and given the incredibly long time it takes to get published, I think every writer owes it to themselves. These days it should probably cost you 15-20 dollars to do a decent version, but it’s still quite possible. I’ve done it in Mexico, in Korea, in Texas―the staff is always really curious and helpful. It’s kind of an unusual request.

The biggest difference between those versions and the final print is length. At the very end of the final version, there’s a single chapter, almost more of an epilogue, where we meet a different character. In the previous version, that character had about five chapters of case notes, describing his investigations. Then there were newspaper articles, folk songs, and editorials as well, sort of like in Watchmen.

I workshopped four versions of the book through Critters.org. I also had a bunch of friends and acquaintances read it, and I was part of a weekly critique group for over a year. The biggest problem I solved was streamlining the story. There was just too much going on. It felt like pulling teeth but eventually it was the right move. I hope the story carries people smoothly from start to finish, and even if not every detail gets explained, it should be a fun ride!

April 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

The Slide That Passes Through Two Dark Rooms: An interview with Kirsten Imani Kasai

6 Mar

The House of Erzulie is a Gothic horror novel that moves between a Creole-owned slave plantation and the home of a notorious New Orleans voodoo practitioner.

The first time I encountered the concept of verisimilitude was in an undergraduate fiction workshop. I was wowed by the size of the word but also underwhelmed by what it meant. Of course fiction ought to achieve the air of reality. Any liar knew this perfectly well. And yet writing realistic-seeming fiction quickly began tripping me up because it led to so many difficult-to-answer questions: Who is the narrator telling this story to? Why is he/she telling it? Would he/she really think/do/say that? Plus, so much of any story or novel is inherently unrealistic. Narrative creates a frame that leaves some information out and directs the reader’s attention to details that, in real life, might go unnoticed. As a beginning writer, once you start worrying about verisimilitude, you often can’t stop (and can’t start writing).

A great example of how to move past the block of seeming realistic can be found in Kirsten Imani Kasai’s new novel The House of Erzulie. In it, an architectural historian is working on a house outside of New Orleans that once was a plantation and discovers letters written by the Creole daughter of the former owner and the diary of her mixed-race husband who sailed from France for the marriage. The novel (and the historian) follows the couple as their marriage and world fall apart. It’s told through three first-person accounts: a standard narration for the historian, Emilie’s letters, and her husband Isidore’s diary.

If you’ve ever tried writing a story in the guide of letters, you will immediately understand the problem such a form poses. Letters are not written with the same intent as a novel, and any novel that adheres too closely to the form risks losing the reader by moving too quickly or not quickly enough. And yet letters have an innate appeal. Reading them (especially when they’re not written to us) gives the sense of peering into a life we weren’t meant to see. So, how can a writer use them in a way that seems realistic but also meets the requirements of a good narrative?

Here’s the opening of Emilie’s first letter:

April 19, 1851

Dearest friend,

Monsieur Saint-ange has been detained in New Orleans, and this delay throw Belle Rive into a phrenzy of anticipation. We have exchanged many cordial letters over the past year, and although he strikes me as the soul of gentility, I know nothing of his true nature. Is he kind and good-humored? Ill-tempered and brusque? Will my heart quicken at first sight of him or will dread chill my frame, knowing that I am to be forever harnessed to one whose form repulses me? I have received but one daguerreotype, of which he is very proud (having sat for this portrait at the Great Exhibition in London with the famed Crystal Palace glimmering behind him) and so I know him to be fine-looking, of deeper complection than myself, with black pomaded hair longer than is fashionable. There is a certain poignancy to his expression, a longing perhaps, expressed in the intensity of his gaze and the sensuous, mustachioed mouth that belies the sorrows of our ancient race. It is a face I shall have to look upon each day for the remained of our natural lives, and I nightly pray that his countenance shall gaze upon my own with tenderness.

Obviously, the letter looks like a letter; it has a date and a greeting. It also does the work of a letter, updating a friend on the latest news. But it also jumps straight to the business of creating suspense. Yes, the letter writer and recipient are in suspense as well, waiting for the future husband to arrive, but the paragraph could have been written much differently, giving details about the frenzy, for example. Or, it could have gone on any number of asides, the way one does in a letter. It could have also moved too quickly; after all, letters are designed to be read fairly quickly, all at once, not over a period of time like a novel.

The letter both creates the verisimilitude of a letter but also does the narrative work of introducing a mystery that the reader will desperate want to see resolved.

 

Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author three novels, most recently The House of Erzulie. She is the publisher and editor of Body Parts Magazine.

In this interview, Kasai talks about structuring storylines that take place in different years, using an epistolary narrative, and writing against the usual tropes in the novel’s portrayal of vodou.

Michael Noll

In a way, this novel is working in a popular genre: the multi-generational novel, in which storylines from different time periods eventually connect. But you did something quite different with the structure. Many novels move back and forth, chapter to chapter, between the time periods, but you didn’t break up the writing from Emilie’s letters and Isidore’s journal. Each comes in a long, uninterrupted section. For me anyway, this really worked. Once I got into one character’s story and POV, I didn’t want to leave. I’m curious, though: did you ever consider using a different structure?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Establishing the structure was one of the more difficult aspects of the book and partly why it took so long to write (about four years). Because it’s a Gothic novel, it had to include the genre convention of the story-within-a-story. I played around with other structural iterations, but I wanted each section to be immersive, inescapable. To separate them would have been to dilute them. If I were to construct a model of the story, it would be a slide (Lydia) that passes through two dark “rooms” (Emilie and Isidore) but ends on a slight upward lift to indicate a break in the downward momentum and a potential propulsion into a more hopeful narrative, which the reader must imagine.

My intent was to write a “deconstructed” Gothic novel that hearkened back to the genre’s Victorian heyday and served as a testament to enduring classics like Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe and wanted to evoke the sensual and textural ambience of his works. Structure, therefore, became just as important as the language, settings and themes.

Narrative structure is like the framing of a house. Everything else is built upon it. If the frame is weak, the story will collapse under its own weight. At the time, I was earning my creative writing teaching certification at Antioch and found the academic space to expand upon and explore my ideas and theories about narrative structure (as outlined in my thesis) being integral to a story’s initial construction, and as a diagnostic tool for revision. I even diagrammed the book to identify the sections and overlapping incidents or themes. This was very helpful. I expected, actually, that I might run up against some opposition about the structure, but I felt that it was right for this story, and necessary to its integrity. I’m just so glad that I found a publisher who appreciated my vision!

Michael Noll

Emilie and Isidore’s sections tell essentially the same story, built around the same central events, but they feel like utterly different narratives. What was your process for writing them? Did you start with a timeline and then write each section? Did you write one in its entirety and then write the other, or did you move back and forth as you wrote?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Isidore was the first character who appeared to me, and so I worked on him first to establish the historical timeline. The back and forth came more during revision and editing. I wrote their sections in blocks, but each one had to also reflect the others to get that “funhouse mirror” effect I sought, where the readers sees multiple or overlapping images. Mirroring and thematic unity is very important in Gothic literature, and so I went back through the book toward its completion to make sure that all the links in the chain were intact.

Michael Noll

One of the things I loved about both sections, but in particular Emilie’s, is how the letters sounded like actual letters but also moved the story forward. In real life, of course, letters don’t always move with narrative efficiency. Did you have any trouble in maintaining the verisimilitude of the letter form while also doing the basic work of a novel?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Letter writing was much different when it was the primary means of interpersonal communication. I did read a number of 19th century letters that were archived in historical collections to see how good correspondents shared their stories. Emilie is a competent writer who loves to read, and so it made sense that her letters would be as effusive and thorough as they are. Writing each character’s section as a whole piece helped keep me rooted within their voices, too.

The challenge with writing the letters was staying within the boundaries of her narrative voice. Same with Isidore. We are only privy to the thoughts they chose to share on paper, while we get to be inside Lydia’s head. So the Letters and the journal had to be constrained by what was likely to have been shared or reported by those authors. Isidore is more expansive in his journal because he’s only speaking to himself, but there’s a sense with Emilie that she’s putting on a brave face for her friend, who is more worldly.

Michael Noll

One of the things Isidore’s section does (and also the present-day sections told by Lydia) is blur the line between consensual reality and something resembling dream/madness/supernatural. In particular, Isidore’s crumbling reality is centered around vodou, which is seen by the characters around Isidore as both exotic and a practical aspect of everyday life. It’s also a religious practice that has been the subject of caricature in many stories. How did you research the practices that P’tit Marie would have used and the way it would have been seen by people at the time?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Depending on your perspective, any religious practice can be viewed as strange or exotic.

However, I really strove to present vodou in a realistic way and avoid the fetishistic or lampoonish portrayals that often characterize it in popular culture. Albert J. Raboteau’s book Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South was incredibly helpful in helping me to access the intersection of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean religions. One of the themes of the novel is how “othering” is used to further isolate or sublimate those who have less socio-economic power, but because this is a Gothic novel, however, I had to play up certain aspects of it to maintain the atmosphere of horror.

Slavery is all about breaking down the individual and dismantling any sense of personal and cultural identity. The determination about what is allowed and sanctified, versus what is heathenish and forbidden has always been decided by the conquerors. European colonizers villainized any religious or spiritual practice that challenged their rule and empowered its practitioners. Christian conversion was enforced because it destroyed the cultural bonds of African religions and substituted the convenient panacea of a “heavenly reward.” The Bilodeaus attempt to constrain the practice of vodou at Belle Rive plantation because they’re afraid of it, but they also rely on it for healing. It’s no wonder that Isidore becomes enthralled by P’tite Marie’s vodou and Emilie’s Spiritualism. Insanity or any form of mental illness has long been blamed on “conjuration” or witchcraft, so a part of him is easily convinced that he, too, has been conjured. Isidore is entirely alienated. He has no “home”—nowhere that he really belongs, and no foundational belief system to support him—therefore, he’s highly suggestible. This alienation contributes to his sense of disconnection and his ultimate unraveling.

Primarily, I wanted to convey the similarities between the Bilodeaus’ Catholicism Spiritualism and vodou—a belief in invisible forces and powers, the importance of ritual, the human need to commune with something greater than ourselves and the necessity of using religion to define the moral structures within our lives.

Finally, I was very drawn to the sense of the Virgin Mary, the Mater Dolorosa, as Erzulie (the Black Madonna) in her numerous manifestations (Erzulie Dantor, Erzulie Ge-Rouge, Erzulie Freda, etc.). Erzulie is a complete woman with many faces—she is loving, kind, wise, protective and maternal but also jealous and vengeful. In a way, I felt like she was the guiding spirit of the book, and so I had a duty to honor her with my portrayal.

March 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

Creating Your Own Omar or Vito Corleone: An interview with crime novelist Steph Post

16 Jan

Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood, A Tree Born Crooked and, most recently, A Walk in the Fire. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics.

Pretty much everyone’s favorite character in the television series The Wire was Omar, the gay, sawed-off shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of the Baltimore streets. And his most memorable scenes were also some of the most mundane in the show: Omar walking down the street, whistling “Three Blind Mice” as kids ran ahead of him, calling out a warning: “It’s Omar!” The theft and shooting that happened afterward was thrilling but rarely as satisfying as the stroll that preceded it. It was the equivalent of Marlon Brando’s best scenes as Vito Corleone, which mostly involved him sitting in a room, holding court.

As writers, we often look for moments that break routines, moments of exaggerated or unusual action, but some of the best scenes in literature and film are set directly in the midst of everyday routine. The key, regardless of the genre you’re writing in, is to discover what makes the mundane exciting.

This is what Steph Post does in all of her crime novels. They’re set in rural northern Florida, among swamps, run-down gas stations, and evangelical churches that prefer the image of money-changer-ass-kicking Jesus rather than Beatitude/turn-the-other-cheek Christ. It’s a potent setting filled with drugs and guns, but some of the most vivid scenes take place while nothing is really happening. Those scenes also happen to be essential to the everyday routine of the place: driving from one spot to another.

Moving characters around is a challenge for all writers, one that’s often solved by skipping it. A character gets on a train and then steps off, leaving the actual train ride off the page. This can be an effective strategy, but Post does the opposite. She digs into the lull of driving to show us her characters. Here is a typical scene:

Lesser glanced over at Judah, relaxed behind the wheel, and then purposefully slouched down on the other end of the F-150’s maroon vinyl bench seat. He cranked the window down and resisted the urge to brush his chin-length hair of out his face. It whipped across his eyes, but he tried to ignore it as he slung his elbow up on the edge of the window and squinted through the streaked windshield into the lowering twilight. He rode in silence for a few miles, trying to watch Judah out of the corner of his eye, but not be noticed doing so.
In the luminous green glow from the dash, Judah seemed so at ease, his arm half out the window, fingers just barely touching the steering wheel, a lit cigarette burning down in the other hand, resting lightly on the gearshift. The wind seemed only to graze his hair. Judah appeared to be completely engrossed in the monotony of the road ahead of them. Or maybe he was preoccupied with some kind of deep thoughts, of Ramey most likely, and Lesser was startled when Judah suddenly tossed his cigarette out the window and picked up the pack from the dash console.
“Go ahead, kid. It’s not as glamorous as it looks.”

In this moment, we see the kind of vehicle these characters drive, how they drive it (windows rolled down, wind in their hair), and what they do while driving (thinking and smoking). The scene also builds character by showing how effortlessly Judah is able to make smoking and driving look cool and how much Lesser would like to be like him. Post turns a passage that could easily be cut into great, engaging writing.

She does this throughout the book, returning again and again to the characters’ vehicles, showing them rolling up before a crime and peeling out afterward, being worked on, and sitting abandoned. You can’t tease out the novel’s plot from the way the characters interact with an essential part of the place where they live: their cars and trucks.

A Walk in the Fire is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at a bookstore near you.

In this interview, Post talks about how she made driving around northern Florida an opportunity for great crime writing.

Michael Noll

I’m from Kansas, not Florida, but I recognize the spirit of certain parts of your novels’ setting, if not the actual place itself. One of the things I love about how you write about the place—the swamps and run-down houses and bars and weird churches—is that they aren’t metaphors. And they’re not overblown to elicit a kind of false emotion in the reader. They’re just the places where the characters happen to be. This is hard to pull off, at least based on my reading experience. Maybe it’s because writers who come from those places tend to leave, or because they consciously or unconsciously write for an audience that isn’t from that place, their portrayals of it feel a bit like giddy cultural tourism. Did you have an audience in mind for these descriptions?

Steph Post

Wow, first of all thank you so much for your kind words. And I’m so glad you picked up on the fact that none of the places or settings are metaphors or tableaux or symbols to represent something in a character’s unconscious. They are, as you say, just places where the characters happen to be. Which doesn’t lessen the setting’s importance- it simply makes it more relevant to the characters of the novel.

And so perhaps that’s the audience I have in mind when I write descriptions of a landscape or a dive bar: the characters themselves. The characters are everything and so whenever I craft a scene I have to keep in mind whose point of view I’m writing from. I can have a little more poetic license when writing, say, from Ramey’s point of view. She looks at the world through a more open, more considering, lens than a character like Judah or Benji or Clive. Judah might look out at a landscape and feel something remarkable, but he’s not going to expound upon it. And so when writing from his point of view, I can’t go off into some florid description of the light filtering through the trees and liken it to a stirring in his soul or something. Judah would call bullshit. Actually, Ramey probably would, too.

Michael Noll

A great example of your great descriptions is the early junkyard scene. You write about the characters in it as if it’s the most natural place in the world to get some alone time. What do you draw upon when you write a place like this?

Steph Post

I’ve never had the exact experience that Ramey has in the opening scene of the novel—where she is able to find time alone surrounded by towers of crushed cars out in the salvage yard—but my dad worked on and sold cars and had no idea what to do with a little kid when it was Sunday and his turn to take me for the week, so I spent a lot of time alone, hanging out in the garage or the car lot or whatever junkyard he’d brought me along to.

As a teen onwards, my way of finding those moments was always to head out into the woods or the swamp and lose myself among the trees. When I was writing this particular scene, I think I combined the two ideas. I had this vision of Ramey sitting in a forest—a more conventional place where one might find solitude—but instead of trees, she’s surrounded by these stacks of cars. She’s finding her peace in the only place she can.

Michael Noll

Cars feature prominently in the book, whether they’re junked or in the shop or being driven. Do you know a lot about cars? I ask because I don’t, and so when I’m talking to a mechanic, I’m intensely aware of my lack of knowledge, which is easy to give away. You even have brief scenes where characters are working on cars, and you give details–fairly specific. I don’t know if you researched the mechanical parts, but I’ve seen books where the writer was clearly showing off his or her research with passages that went on too long. How did you strike the right balance between enough detail to be convincing but not too much to drag down the narrative?

Steph Post

Well, I’m glad that it looked like I sort of knew what I was talking about! Because honestly, I don’t know much about working on cars. My brother is a mechanic and my husband knows a lot, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to anything technical under the hood. So when in doubt, I just asked one of them. I think the balance comes off because I’m only supplying just enough detail to give an idea of what a character is working on. Again, it goes back to a character’s point of view. If Judah is working on a car, he’s going to just assume that everyone knows what a catalytic converter is and so there’s no need to take it further. I spend a lot of time on research for a novel, but I only use about a tenth of what I learn. I don’t ever want the research to overshadow the story.

Michael Noll

In all of your books, your characters spend a lot of time driving. It’s necessary, of course, since you can’t exactly take the subway where they live. Moving characters around requires a lot of time. You could show it on the page or not. For instance, you could write, “They drove to the gas station and got out.” Or, you could show them en route. You tend to show them, and those moments tend to be contemplative. Is this just a natural way of writing those scenes? Or is there something about the act of driving in North Florida that is particular to the place?

Steph Post

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, so I’m glad you brought it up. I think it comes down to growing up in the country and now writing about characters who live and move in the same landscape. In these places, it takes time to get anywhere. Where I grew up, it was ten miles at least to the nearest stop light and another five to get to the first gas station. And spending a lot of time riding and driving around means that a lot happens in cars. Fights, confessions, hearts won and broken. So it seems only natural to set scenes with characters on the road. A lot also doesn’t happen when you’re driving half an hour just to get to the nearest grocery store, so being on the road gives you a lot of time to contemplate or daydream. I don’t think this is specific to Florida, but rather to anywhere where long distances factor into everyday living.

Michael Noll

I love the small moments that you describe in cars. For example, there’s a moment where Sister Tulah adjusts the air conditioning vents even though they’re pointed in the right direction–she’s just fidgeting to calm herself. There’s another scene where a character rolls down the window, rests his arm on it, and doesn’t brush his hair away as it blows in his face. These are visceral driving moments. What is your own car history? What do you draw upon when you describe a character’s experience driving?

Steph Post

I think in a lot of ways cars are an extension of us, even if it’s just the car we’re riding in at the moment. The fact that Sister Tulah buys a new Lincoln every year—that she is so particular about its tiniest details—this is clearly part of her character. Her car is as much a part of her as her Bible. If you watch how people ride and drive, you can tell so much about who they are or who they are trying to be. Lesser, for example, is a teen just trying to be cool when he’s riding in the car with Judah in the first chapter. He’s mimicking Judah’s movements inside the space of the car—the slouch, the arm on the rolled down window—because it’s encompassing the sort of person he wants to be.

I’ve spent a lot of time on road trips and it’s these times in particular that I draw upon when I write about characters in cars. The wind whipping through open windows, the smell of asphalt blistering in the sun, the buzz of destination possibilities. The, as you say, visceral driving moments. To go back to your first question, my characters don’t move in a world of metaphor, they move in a world of gut feelings and reactions. So I do my best to draw upon my own raw feelings and hope that it comes through in the writing.

January 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

An Interview with Kelly Davio

30 Nov

Kelly Davio is the author of the new essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability.

Kelly Davio is a poet, essayist, and editor. She’s the author of essay collection, It’s Just Nerves and the poetry collections, Burn This House and The Book of the Unreal Woman, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2019. She also writes the sometimes-column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazineand her work has been published in a number of other journals including Poetry Northwest, The Normal School, Vinyl, The Toast, Women’s Review of Books, and others. She is one of the founding editors of the Tahoma Literary Review.

To read an exercise about creating story by making and breaking routine, inspired by Davio’s essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio,” click here.

In this interview, Davio discusses writing with audience reaction in mind, figuring out essay length, and ordering essays within a collection.

Michael Noll

Perhaps my favorite part of the essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio” is the moment at the end you begin with “This is the part of the story when I am supposed to…” How much of that “supposed to” comes from previous essays that you’ve read and stories you’ve heard and how much of it comes from just anticipating what the reader’s reaction to your story might be?

Kelly Davio

Part of that response comes from the way that friends reacted when I told them about the incident that the essay circles around. People were upset on my behalf and were well meaning, but they mostly told me “I hope you punched the guy,” or “I would’ve called security and gotten him thrown out of the building,” or even “I wouldn’t let someone get away with that.” It became clear to me pretty quickly that, somehow, people thought I did something wrong in how I handled myself, and that if they were in my place, they’d know how to perform my role in a way that had a more satisfactory ending. As a person with feelings, that frustrated me. As a writer, it was an interesting human behavior that I wanted to investigate a little further.

Another part of the “supposed to” comes from the really simplistic ways that we treat disability in pop culture; when I think about films or books that have characters who use mobility aids of any kind, I can’t think of a single one in which that medical device isn’t turned into a prop that the character has to “overcome” in order to have a breakthrough of some kind. I wanted to subtly underscore the fact that that cinematic expectation has bled over into how we think people in very real circumstances should be expected to act.

Michael Noll

The incident that you write about in the essay is pretty awful, yet it doesn’t actually arrive on the page until over half of the way through. Did you ever try putting it at the front–that’s what young writers are told, right? To get the reader’s attention? Did you always think of the incident as part of a series of falls?

Kelly Davio

Kelly Davio’s essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability led Sheila Black to write, “If you want to know what it feels like to be a person with a disability in the 21st century, read this book.”

You know, I never did try the essay in any other order, even though many of my essays do start in the middle and then circle back to the circumstances that brought the action about. In this particular essay, I liked starting where I did because it gave me a chance to win the reader over a bit. I felt that, if I could get the audience onboard with the voice and the humanity of the person telling this story, maybe they’d care what happened to that person later.

I didn’t really think about the punch as being a fall in a literal sense, but it did seem to me like a type of fall—a falling of expectations that I had of others in my community of writers, or maybe even a fall from grace in being a “good” sick person who takes crummy treatment without complaint.

Michael Noll

I wonder if you could talk a bit about essay form and your approach to it. Most of your essays are a few pages long and were published originally (like most essays written today) in online journals. How much of their length, scope, and structure has been dictated by how they’re read and where they’re published (online versus in print)? On the other hand, “Our NHS” is quite long. What prompted the change in length and form?

Kelly Davio

Most of these essays did appear online first, as you say, and I wrote them with specific word counts in mind for the venues that were publishing them. When I was writing for The Butter, for example, 500 words per piece was about right for the format and the audience. It was also about right for the pace at which I was writing the essays; my column appeared every two weeks, so I needed to write shorter material if I was going to have enough time to get each piece into publishable shape on deadline.

That’s a pretty tight word count, though, and when I was putting the entire collection together, I didn’t want the whole book to read as a series of snappy takes, as though I was the Dave Barry of disability. That’s why I wrote some longer-form pieces, like “Our NHS,” that didn’t appear anywhere else before they came out in the book; I wanted to give the reader a chance to settle in a little bit, as though they were driving on a nice, open highway after a lot of stop-and-go traffic.

It was also enjoyable for me to write some longer, researched pieces, because that challenged me as a writer in different ways than short pieces did; brief essays don’t really have as many structural options to work with, but an extended essay can be put together in any number of different ways, and I found it really pleasurable to puzzle out how I wanted them to gel and how I wanted them to connect the shorter pieces in the book.

Michael Noll

What was your approach to ordering the essays in this collection? 

Kelly Davio

I didn’t intend for these essays to be ordered chronologically, but as I shuffled the table of contents around, it made more and more sense that some of the first essays I wrote would open the book, and that I’d move toward the most recent.

There are some exceptions, but in general, I wrote these essays about topics that were immediate to me; in many cases, the pieces in the collection were written within a few days or weeks of the incidents that they describe, so ordering the book in a chronological way allowed me to present a coherent narrative set in a mostly contained time interval.

You pointed out earlier that I break with advice that’s often given to writers (about getting right into action). I’m also a big fan of ignoring advice about letting situations cool off so that you can gain perspective before writing about them. Some of the pieces that I’m happiest with are ones that I started working on right in the thick of the events that they revolve around. Those essays needed a lot of revision, of course, but there’s a kind of immediacy and unvarnished openness that (for me, anyway) comes with writing in the moment, and that’s something I want to give the reader. I don’t want to duck behind cleverness or distance—I want to be brave enough to be earnest.

November 2017

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

How to Knock Your Characters Back to Square One

28 Nov

Kelly Davio’s essay collection It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability led Sheila Black to write, “If you want to know what it feels like to be a person with a disability in the 21st century, read this book.”

Here’s another maxim of workshop: Stories are built out of broken routines. It’s a true and useful piece of advice, but when taken too directly, it can lead to a thousand versions of “A funny thing happened on the way to the ____.” While many stories eventually reach a sentence that rephrases that line, what happens before they do can make or break what comes next.

A great example of building and breaking routine in an interesting way can be found in Kelly Davio’s essay “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio.” It was originally published at Change Seven Magazine and is included in her new book It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins with a straightforward presentation of a routine:

I’m pretty good at falling. Over the past few years of living with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I’ve learned how to come down on the flats of my hands without jamming my wrists, and even if my knees bruise, I can always wear something that covers the worst of the marks so I don’t look like the victim of some kind of alarming knee-related crime.

Soon, she adds to it:

Finally, I had to admit I needed a cane; there were times when I had no shoulder to hang from, and I needed a better strategy than hoping I’d magically stay upright every moment I was alone.

So, I did it: I ordered myself a green paisley cane. Fifteen bucks, two days, and some free Prime shipping later, and I was in business.

Between her practice at falling and her new cane, Davis is doing pretty well. But then she attends AWP, the big conference for writers. She’ll see people she knows, people who will be surprised at the cane and her appearance, and so a wrench is thrown into the gears of the routine:

Heaving myself out of the car with my cane, I felt like a grade school kid worrying about what the schoolyard bullies would say about her coke-bottle glasses—my new accessory was a necessity, but something that made me uncomfortably visible.

Things at the conference go well. She even gets quoted at a panel discussion she’s attending, a writer’s dream exceeded in pleasure only by seeing a stranger reading your book. She’s feeling good…and then the routine gets broken (or remade):

It was while shuffling through the corridors with my renewed sense of confidence that I felt the fist in my back. A man walking behind me had, for no reason I can imagine, punched me between the shoulder blades.

I flew forward. I came down, knees cracking hard on the concrete floor, trying to fall so that I wouldn’t injure myself, but failing in the brute surprise of it all.

The usual order of a routine break goes like this: routine, introduction of some new and disruptive element, no more routine. But Davio has done something that is at once more realistic and more interesting. She develops a routine and then adapts it to her surroundings and changes she cannot control. She rolls with the punches, so to speak, until one literally knocks her down. That punch also knocks her back to the conditions that existed before her routine began, when she was not yet “pretty good at falling.” The question for the reader becomes this: What will happen now that she’s back at square one?

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create, break, and remake a routine, using “I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Find the conditions that force your character to create a routine. For Davio, it’s the physical condition that causes her to fall. Most of us know our own conditions. For me, I don’t buy chips or candy because I know that I’ll eat it all in one feeding. I have plenty of will power—except around those things. Other people avoid or seek out other items or experiences. This step goes hand-in-hand with the creation of the routine. What does your character (or, in the case of essay and memoir, you or your people) need to seek out or avoid? Why?
  2. Let the routine adapt to failure. Davio needs to avoid falling but cannot. So, she gets better at falling. What she avoids is not falling itself but the dangerous landing. If a routine removes your character from danger completely, it’s probably not a good routine—at least for story purposes. (In real life, it might be a great routine.) How can you make the conditions from the previous step unavoidable or impossible to embrace (if sought out)? In other words, how can you make the routine a matter of dealing with the conditions but not changing them completely?
  3. Continue to adapt. Davio eventually buys a cane. Falling well is no longer sufficient or possible. What happens when your character’s routine no longer works as well as it needs to? What does your character add, remove, or change?
  4. Introduce a moment of doubt. For Davio, this comes when she enters a new place: a conference as opposed to her home and usual surroundings. For your character, what change or shift in setting or situation makes the chronic conditions seem suddenly more intense or more dangerous?
  5. Let the character thrive—at least for a moment. For a while, Davio has a terrific conference experience. It’s a relief to her and also to her readers, who are dealt a reprieve from the dread of wondering what bad thing will occur. As a general rule, avoid ramping up your plot or complications in an orderly or predictable way. If things seem to be getting worse (or better), change up the trend.
  6. Knock your character back to life before the routine. For Davio, this happens literally. She started the essay by learning to fall well, but now she has fallen badly. The pivotal moment in her story, then, is both the introduction of something new and disruptive (the guy who punches her) and also a return to the original conditions as they existed before she adapted to them with her routine. What new element could return your character to square one?

The goal is to create a trend (problem, solution, fine-tuned solution) and then break it in a way that play toward and against the reader’s expectations.

Good luck.

An Interview with Juli Berwald

16 Nov

Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless, which a New York Times review called “as mesmerizing, surprising, and beautiful as the jellyfish itself.”

Juli Berwald is the author of the memoir Spineless. She received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

To read an excerpt from Spineless and an exercise on developing a narrative voice, click here.

In this interview, Berwald discusses finding her narrative voice, fact-checking science and memory, and learning from a community of fiction writers.

Michael Noll

Spineless is about jellyfish, but it’s also about you. Did you always know that your story would be part of the book? Was there a moment you realized that it was?

Juli Berwald

I’m a huge reader both of fiction and non-fiction. And what I love about fiction is being sucked into a story so that I feel like I’m swimming in it. But I’m a science writer and so I look for models for my own writing in non-fiction. And frequently I don’t find that same sort of immersive connection to non-fiction books. Often I finish a non-fiction book, even one that I really love, and in my head I think, “I could never write a book like that.” And often the book I’ve just finished would have had a very authoritative voice and a somewhat distant energy.

One day, I realized that “I could never write a book like that” could be said with a different intonation, more of a proclamation than a sigh. And that change of tone freed me from having to write a book “like that.” It was in that moment that I realized what I could do. I could write a book with more of the stuff that makes fiction so compelling to me: a conversational voice and a “come along with me and let’s figure this out” story line. And I realized that I’d need to include my own story in the book.

Michael Noll

Since this is a book about science, I would imagine that it was pretty heavily fact-checked. How much did the fact-checking extend to the non-science stuff, such as who you were hanging out with in college and grad school? When it came to the personal parts of the book, did you ever fudge anything or condense moments or people?

Juli Berwald

Yes, the science was all fact-checked as hard as I could fact check it. I had Shin-ichi Uye, who is the jellyfish expert who traveled in Japan with me, read the whole book and I sent off chapters to some of the key scientists for comments. I also paid a fact-checker to go through all the dates and names and dollar amounts and anything else she could find. Then the copy editors found a few things too. It was grueling. And I still found a few errors when I recorded the audio book. Most were inconsequential but one bugs me a lot. So if anyone reads this, on page 204: “datasets spanning the years 1970 to 2011” should be “datasets spanning the years 1940 to 2011.”

All of the personal stuff is true as well as I can remember. I went back through journals, photos, and old slides and even dug up my dissertation and some old scientific papers to verify dates and memories. I passed some of it by a friend who went to grad school with me. Interestingly, in my mind over the course of three decades I had expanded the first marine biology course I took in Israel to something like two or three weeks, but when I looked back at my journal it was only one. Goes to show how hour our memories can inflate moments, and also how much it impacted me.

Michael Noll

Spineless

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

You have a really smooth way of quickly explaining things and giving context. For example, there’s a passage when you’re talking about the explosion of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and the possibility of introducing a predator to control it. In less than a paragraph, you sum up the challenge of doing so and give two examples (one of getting it right and one of getting it wrong). I can imagine that it might be tempting to make the explanation of that point much longer. Was that something you had to cut back for narrative efficiency, or did you have a sense in the back of your head for how much explanation and context to give in moments like that?

Juli Berwald

I’m so glad you bring up that paragraph in particular. I must have spent a week or more doing the research to get those two examples. I knew I wanted to explain the response to an invasive species, but I didn’t really know the science behind what happens when you plant a new species to take care of the invasion. There’s a huge amount of literature on it and I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Originally, that paragraph was pages long and full of all kinds of explanations of the experiments and results and scientists involved, and some of it was really interesting.

But this book took a very long time to write and so I had the luxury of going back to old writing when my emotional tie to the amount of work I’d put in had dissipated. For the most part, that allowed me be surgical to my writing, and cut out all the stuff that, while interesting, just didn’t matter to the point at hand. There are a few places where I still don’t think I got it as right as I could have, but the long time involved was definitely beneficial.

Michael Noll

You write beautifully about an animal that, for a lot of people, prompts an initial reaction of, “Ooh, gross.” Certainly no one would say that after reading Spineless. You write in the book about a previous job crafting science curricula and tests for an educational company—which involved, I’m sure, writing that was something less than beautiful and inspiring. Is the prose in this book a more natural style for you, or did you have to consciously think about it?

Juli Berwald

That’s a cool question. How about if I say consciously natural? I have always been a big reader, like I mentioned. And I wrote some when I was in high school and thought I’d like to continue writing. But then I got to college—it was Amherst, a small liberal arts college known for its writing program. And I was surrounded by all these amazing writers. I became incredibly intimidated very quickly. Luckily, I was decent at math and decided to be a math major, in large part to avoid competing with all that brilliance. And I stopped writing pretty much until I became a textbook writer in my 30s.

At the textbook company, my job was to try to distill complicated ideas in to spaces that could hold just a few sentences. And I found the challenge super fascinating. How can you cut out all the unnecessary words, but still be accurate? I did that for a decade, and I think that served me very well because I really wrestled with language almost like it was a math problem, trying to find the most elegant and correct solution. I also started reading magazine science writing with a very critical eye. Looking for ways that those talented science writers added humor and snark and delight to their writing. But I was also still pretty much a blank slate when it came to my own writing voice.

So I started hanging out with all kinds of fiction and memoir writers and going to their writing classes and writing retreats. I joined a writing group with fiction writers and memoirists that’s still really important to me today. I’m generally the odd science writer at all these gatherings, but I love it because I’ve been such a fiction fan my whole life. These writers really encouraged me to find a voice that could handle the science, but also allowed me to pull in the memoir. And eventually it became the voice in Spineless, one that I feel really good about.

November 2017

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

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