Month: June 2013

What Can We Steal From Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Housewifely Arts,” short story
Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman (on Twitter @mayhewbergman)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published in 2010 by One Story, one of the best journals out there.  Their conceit is a lot of fun; you get one story in the mail at a time.  The story was subsequently chosen by Heidi Pitlor and Geraldine Brooks for Best American Short Stories 2011.  The story also appears in Ms. Bergman’s short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

Bonuses:  Read the title story from Ms. Bergman’s collection at Narrative MagazineHere is an interview Ms. Bergman gave to flyway.  Here is a talk Ms. Bergman gave that is titled “Fiction as an Agent of Change”:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Parallel Narratives

Discussion:
Ms. Bergman’s first-person narrator has problems.  She’s a single mother who is missing her own since the woman died.  Her son Ike, like all kids, is growing up fast and the narrator laments the kind of man he may become.  (The narrator seems not to have the highest opinion of those who possess the ol’ XY.)  The only remnant of her mother is Carnie, a parrot who lived with the woman in her final years.  In flashbacks, Ms. Bergman depicts Carnie singing Judy Garland and Patsy Cline songs to fill the loneliness of the old woman’s life.  The narrator and Ike find the bird in a roadside zoo, but Carnie won’t say a word.  After that, mother and son take a detour to visit her childhood home, now moldy and dilapidated.  The story ends with a sad flashback: the day the narrator helped her mother move into a home.

Ms. Bergman employs a narrative technique in the story that I want to point out: the parallel narrative.  She alternates between flashback scenes that took place between the narrative and her mother and ones in the dramatic present.  The two narratives are mirrors that reflect upon each other.

  1. We learn how the narrator and her mother felt about each other and the obstacles that prevented them from reaching understanding.
  2. We learn about the narrator’s need to find some peace with her dead mother and to provide her son with at least the kind of home that she had growing up.

Another element that I found interesting about the story is that Ms. Bergman was NOT building up to the discovery of the bird.  I thought this was going to be the interesting, perhaps cathartic end of the tale, but Ms. Bergman introduces Carnie 60% of the way into the story and the scene itself wasn’t very long.  The parrot was the BIG THING that the reader was expecting to see.  Would the narrator gain some catharsis?  Would she hear her mother’s voice?

Instead, the parrot was simply another plot point building up to the material about the contrasting homes.  Ms. Bergman did not trick the reader, but it seems that she did understand what was maintaining the reader’s interest.  After Carnie’s time in the sun is over, our attention is turned to the story thread involving the homes.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ parallel narratives to enhance the significance of two stories.  The past affects our understanding of both the dramatic present and past.
  • Understand what you are setting up for the reader and decide whether you are going to give it to them.  You don’t want to do a bait-and-switch, but it’s a good idea to understand the expectations you’ve built so you can subvert them.

Script Doctor Ken, M.D.: 2010’s Loving the Bad Man

The Patient: Loving the Bad Man

Writer/Director: Peter Engert

Medical History: Born in 2010.  Serious Stephen Baldwin infestation.  Has been passed around the Evangelical community.  As of the time of this appointment, the film can be watched on Netflix Instant.  The protagonist of the film is Julie Thompson, a 23-year-old virgin.  When her tire goes flat, Mike (a troubled mechanic) stumbles off of his barstool to help her.  Mike has some sort of flashback to his evil boss and rapes Julie, who quickly finds out she’s pregnant.  Julie goes into labor as Mike goes to jail.  Julie starts visiting Mike at the prison, bringing their young son.  Yada, yada, yada, Mike’s hard heart is softened by Julie’s goodness and by Jesus.  Trailer:

SCRIPT DOCTOR’S INITIAL NOTES:

I’d be violating that whole “don’t bear false witness thing” if I didn’t say that Loving the Bad Man is a sometimes confusing film that has major, major problems.  (I think it’s fair to say that those who created the film wouldn’t want me to violate a commandment, right?)  What is much more important is that I respond to the film according to some of my own KENmandments.

The First KENmandment: Thou shalt respect the beauty of the artistic impulse.

The men and women responsible for Loving the Bad Man seem to care very deeply about the film.  Whether or not the movie is great, they shared a very special experience and worked together to tell a story that mattered to them.

The Second KENmandment: Thou shalt evaluate a work according to its specific goals.

Mr. Engert and his cast and crew seem to want to evangelize their religion and concept of faith to others.  I am perfectly willing to believe that Loving the Bad Man successfully touched the hearts of many people.

The Third KENmandment: Thou shalt try not to be a jerk to other artists unless there’s a really good reason to do so.

Mr. Engert has never spit on my car and the film doesn’t endorse any dogmatic positions that may be “problematic.”  So why should I lay into the gentleman’s work in an unpleasant manner?  We’re all artists and are subject to literary criticism, but it shouldn’t get personal unless there’s a good reason.

DIAGNOSIS/TREATMENT:

First Act Problems

There are some pretty big flaws in the first act of Loving the Bad Man.  The characters are extremely simple.  Mike the Rapist is bad.  His boss is super mean.  Julie is good and nice.  Mr. Engert does not allow shades of gray into the characterization.  Julie is 23 and works in a supermarket.  Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we get no sense of what she intends for the larger scope of her life.  She has two good parents…it seems they would probably have worked with her on that before the age of 23.  And if not, why not?  Mike beats up the mean boss and there are witnesses, but there are no repercussions.  Why not?

The turning point of Act One is Julie’s rape.  It occurs at the perfect time: 16 minutes in.  (In case you didn’t know, “turning point” is a screenwriting term.  Look up Syd Field.)  Now, including such a sad event in your work can get you a lot of pathos.  Any kind of rape story or anything involving harming children certainly makes me Insta-sad.  But here’s the problem.  We’re only told that poor Julie is raped.  I’m certainly not suggesting the filmmakers include a fifty-minute scene of the whole encounter, but the viewer must piece things together from being TOLD, not shown.  Here is the worst that we are shown:

lovingthebadman1

Like I said, I don’t need to see a super graphic scene to understand what is happening to Julie.  But in a movie whose whole premise depends upon her being impregnated by rape, it seems appropriate to show just a little more.  Compare this scene from Loving the Bad Man to the very powerful scene near the beginning of Breaking the Waves in which Emily Watson loses her virginity.  It’s just a very tight close-up on the actress’s face.  We know exactly what is happening and exactly how the character feels and what the experience means to her.

The next scene depicts the parents finding Julie’s car parked askew on the lawn and Julie is passed out behind some bushes.  The filmmakers expect us to believe that a young woman is passed out for several hours in the front yard of a suburban home in full view of the street and no one has said anything?  (The Bystander Effect is strong, but not that strong.)  Oh, and the father—justifiably furious—drives by the scene of the crime the next day and what was a desolate street with zero traffic is now a bustling thoroughfare.

Immediately after that, Julie has dinner with her family at a picnic table.  Her mother emerges from the home, stricken.  This happens:

lovingthebadman2It’s my understanding that it’s wildly illegal for a medical-type-person to disclose this kind of information to a parent, particularly considering the patient is 23.  Why did this problem occur?  Perhaps because Mr. Engert had to get that information out somehow and a scene in a doctor’s office might have slowed things down; the outside dinner scene also serves to establish the father’s anger at Julie and the kindness of Cole, the “good man” who wants to do mission work and serves as contrast to Mike the Rapist.  Oh, and perhaps most importantly, the parents instantly suggest Julie abort the baby and Julie instantly decides not to.  Is this the way important decisions are made by real people?

Immediately after this scene, the audience gets this:

lovingthebadman3…then one minute later, Julie’s having her baby:

lovingthebadman4That was fast!  I love that the birth scene is intercut with the scenes of Mike going to prison (even being examined by the prison doctor), but Mr. Engert is jumping around too much and making us do too much math.

Is the baby premature?  I don’t believe the characters say so later.

Did it take three months for a rape victim to determine she is pregnant?

Has the gestation period of human beings changed recently?

As a bachelor in his thirties and a writer, I don’t like doing math and I’m not entirely familiar with all of the ins and outs of human reproduction.

DIAGNOSIS/RECOMMENDED TREATMENT:

It’s my professional opinion that THIS is where the movie really should begin.  This is not a movie about a woman having a baby, so don’t waste half an hour of screen time getting there.  It’s intended to be a story about the redemption of an evil man and a triumph of a righteous woman.  What exposition was released in Act One that couldn’t be released elsewhere in the story?  Not much.  As it stands, Mike already has flashbacks of the rape.  The father has scenes in Act Two in which he takes his anger out on Julie and the baby.  The audience loses nothing if you just lop off those first thirty minutes.

Simplistic Epiphanies

It takes an awful lot of page space and several experiences for Jean Valjean to cast off the anger that is weighing him down.  His epiphany is complicated and ongoing.  He even needs at least two tune-ups after his incident with Petit Picpus.  (Admitting he is Jean Valjean and atoning for casting Fantine away.)

This is not the case in Loving the Bad Man.  How do you forgive the man who raped you, took your virginity and impregnated you?  Why, you put the baby to sleep, cry a little and then look at the cross on your wall.  Then this happens:

lovingthebadman5After that, you are ready to bring your baby to meet his rapist father and have called “bygones” on what happened.  Is forgiveness really that easy?  So quick?  Even if the viewer can’t imagine bringing the baby to prison to see his father, we want to like Julie and we want to feel for her, but these actions just don’t seem realistic.  Epiphanies are not easy.

Unless they begin Act Three, apparently.  Do I believe a rapist can feel guilt?  Of course.  But Mike doesn’t gain catharsis by begging Julie for forgiveness.  He doesn’t write a thousand letters of apology to her.  His epiphany comes when he reads the Bible passages that Julie marked in the book she gave him.  See?

lovingthebadman6In Les Miserables, atonement was a big struggle for Jean Valjean and resulted in the poor guy repaying everyone possible.  When Javert has his own epiphany, he commits suicide out of guilt for what he has done to subvert real justice and because he realizes he has lived in a fantasy world for decades.

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Remember, this is after several unsolicited visits from the woman he raped. We haven’t seen him break down and apologize or perform any acts of contrition or anything.

DIAGNOSIS/RECOMMENDED TREATMENT:

The process must be more difficult and uncomfortable for both Julie and Mike.  Yes, I understand that Mr. Engert wants to make the Bible and Jesus a big part of it, and that’s fine.  But complicated emotions and circumstances require a more complicated depiction.  Julie must be more conflicted about meeting with her rapist (instead of appearing excited and joyful to be doing so from the start) and Mike must manifest the weight of his guilt a lot more if we’re really to feel a lot at the end of the film.

A Confusing Title and Some Things Don’t Make Sense

The title Loving the Bad Man implies that Julie loves her rapist, right?  I guess I can buy it on a woman-comes-to-forgive-and-moves-on basis.  But from the title alone, I thought there was going to be some romance between the two.  Is it just me, or would that be a bridge too far?  According to the title, who is being told to love and who must be loved?  The bad guys in the prison are way worse people than Mike.

At one point, the father has purchased and is installing a car seat.  Julie and her mother look on and laugh; he’s bought “the wrong one.”  Julie owns a regular sedan; are there child car seats that won’t work in a…you know…a car?

Julie gets kicked out of the house because her father is upset about the “bastard” child.  She immediately seems to have found an apartment.  Where did she go that night?  Do we get enough of the father’s point of view to understand his anger, or is it simply a convenient plot point?

Why does Julie have zero anger or fear or any compunction whatsoever about visiting Mike in the prison?  She also instantly assumes Mike will be super jazzed to see her and a baby.  I get that Julie is supposed to be a good person, but this doesn’t seem realistic.

I can’t help but point out Stephen Baldwin’s fake tattoos.  In case you weren’t aware, “88” is a big thing for white supremacist/neo-Nazi types.  The eighth letter in the alphabet is H.  “HH” = “Heil Hitler.”  (I learned that from the controversy surrounding what’s her name who was with Jesse James.)

lovingthebadman8DIAGNOSIS/RECOMMENDED TREATMENT:

I dunno.  Change those things a little?

The Unrequited Love Elephant in the Room

Before I retired from pursuing romantic relationships (all my fault, I hasten to point out), I found myself on the unfortunate end of many situations in which my affection was unrequited.  Don’t we all have these experiences from time to time?  Well, I related strongly to Cole, a too-perfect guy who worked with Julie, ostensibly before she had to quit to have and care for her baby.  in the third act, Cole is the manager of the store.  After Julie is told at the prison that she can’t visit the man who raped her, she tearfully heads to the store, hoping for Cole to reassure her and show her some kindness.

lovingthebadman9Poor Julie is breaking down because her family is rebelling against her and life is just getting very, very tough.  Cole, of course, is happy to lend her his incredibly absorbent shoulder.

lovingthebadman10Who’s that on the what now?  Julie is lamenting that even her rapist has seemingly turned his back on her.  (He’s in the infirmary after being stabbed in the stomach, but the guard wouldn’t tell her that.)  I am willing to believe that people are capable of just about anything, but we need to be prepared for this kind of thought.

Here’s my main point, and maybe it’s a personal one.  Whether intentionally or not, the film treats Mike the Rapist far more kindly than it does Cole the Grocery Guy.

lovingthebadman11
Never say it out loud, bro. Put it in a short story! Lemme know if you want to talk. We’ll order a pizza and watch a Tigers game.

This is supposed to be a story about Mike’s redemption, but Mr. Engert introduced this thread of the story, too.  As one of Mike’s friends points out, families come in all kinds of configurations.  Perhaps Cole would adopt the baby and give Julie a four-person family.  I kept waiting for Julie to treat Cole with more kindness than Mike, but it never happened.  At one point, she mentions that the two are “talking about it” or something, but come on.  (And we never see it.)  (And the closing title sequence suggests that she and Cole don’t get together.)

DIAGNOSIS/RECOMMENDED TREATMENT:

If you’re not going to pay off Cole’s narrative, cut him out or eliminate his crush on Julie.  I know it’s tough because he facilitates a lot of the redemption stuff with the father, but this is the primary problem of the film.  These characters should be real people with real lives that occur off-screen.  Instead, it seems that Cole is put into stasis until the story needs him.  We shouldn’t ask any big questions in our work that we’re not willing to answer.

SUMMATION:

The characters in our work should be put ahead of the message we are trying to convey.  They are a vehicle toward enhanced understanding.  And I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say that reading a letter from a person is not a very satisfying denouement.  The final moments of the film should have established the new conditions of everyone’s lives and provided catharsis for the audience.

What Can We Steal From John Gosselink’s The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter?

Title of Work and its Form:  The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter, novel
Author: John Gosselink
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book can be found at fine independent bookstores everywhere, including Boise, Idaho’s Rediscovered Books.

Bonuses: Here are some of the humor columns Mr. Gosselink has written for his local paper.  Here is a very kind review of the book from A Book and a Hug.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Thaddeus Ledbetter is a precocious seventh-grader who is as snarky as he is smart.  Young Mr. Ledbetter is just trying to help Principal Cooper increase the productivity of students and teachers at his school.  How is he repaid?  An extended stay in in-school suspension.  Does being persecuted keep Thaddeus down?  Of course not.  Although exiled, the young man compiles a series of documents to demonstrate that he is innocent of any charges that have been unfairly leveled at him.

Yes, this is a “document novel.”  Just like the one I’ve written.  The Defense contains letters from Thaddeus’s friends and enemies, reports the principal completed to explain his student’s behavior, the minutes from the tenant board in Thaddeus’s building and more.  (Yes, he annoys people at home, too.)  I love the way the narrative is built in Mr. Gosselink’s book in the same way I love how the narrative develops in my own document novel.  Instead of being told what is happening by a narrator, the reader absorbs the documents and puts the story together for him or herself.

Mr. Gosselink’s book is extremely charming.  Even though I’m not exactly in the “young adult” demographic, I was taken in by the different voices that Mr. Gosselink employs in each document.  I can see that Thaddeus would be quite annoying if I were his teacher, but it’s also clear that the young man is bright and has a great deal of potential.  The teachers and the principal acknowledge this in their missives, as well.  Mr. Gosselink made a crucial decision in the characterization of the book when he gave Thaddeus a REASON to be so annoying and so dedicated to “helping” others.  Thaddeus’s father, an efficiency expert, recently died after a long illness.  Why wouldn’t the boy take on some of his father’s attitudes?  Why wouldn’t he retreat into the “service” of his pastor (accidentally setting him on fire) and elderly people (accidentally feeding them food that is a choking hazard)?

Good protagonists and antagonists do things for a reason.  Think of a bad action movie.  You likely don’t really know or care why the bad guy is trying to destroy all of the communications satellites around the planet.  The good guy?  Maybe their children are in danger.  The internal conflicts are likely not very complicated.  We love The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter because it is hilarious and fun, but it means something because it’s really the story of a sad young man and the people who care about him and are trying to shepherd him through a sad time in his life.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider writing a work whose story is told through documents instead of by a narrator.  Just make sure my document novel gets published first.  Okay?  =)
  • Give your audience a justification for why they are the way they are.  People don’t do things for no reason and neither should your characters.

How To Break The Rules: Stealing The Exposition Dump From John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.

Title of Work and its Form:  Escape From L.A., feature film
Author: Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell.  Directed by John Carpenter (on Twitter @TheHorrorMaster)
Date of Work: 1996
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The film has been released on DVD.  As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant.  Want to see the official trailer?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The Exposition Dump

Discussion:
Friends, I often don’t sleep well.  One of the ways I try to lull myself to sleep is to watch movies.  (If one of them puts me to sleep, it’s not necessarily the film’s fault, of course.)  Once in a while, a writer or director does something in a film that pleases me as a storyteller.  I selected Escape from L.A. on Netflix and saw this:

John Carpenter began Escape from L.A. with what is called an exposition dump.  Mr. Carpenter had a TON of exposition to get across.  Why?

  1. The film is a sequel to Escape from New York, a film that had been released fifteen years earlier.
  2. The film is a science fiction story about a world very different from our own.  The big one hit in the year 2000 and Los Angeles is now an island.  The Constitution has been changed significantly.  The U.S. now has a President-for-life.  The capital has been moved from Washington D.C. to the President’s hometown.  Morality is being enforced in a disturbing manner.
  3. The setting of the film (Los Angeles, of course) is now a type of penal colony.

Some might say that Mr. Carpenter violated the classic writing dictate of SHOW, DON’T TELL.  Indeed, the calm-voiced female narrator is TELLING us all about how the world has changed.  The truth is that Mr. Carpenter executed a very skillful exposition dump.

Different stories require different kinds of exposition and different kinds of exposition will have different effects on the reader or viewer.  The first couple minutes of Escape to L.A. immerses you in an unpleasant world very quickly.  We all like Los Angeles…we see it destroyed.  We all want freedom of conscience when it comes to religion (or lack thereof)…it’s gone.  We’re all grateful that we live in a country in which power is transferred peacefully and according to election results…not anymore.  There’s a visceral shock in this exposition dump.

Compare this section of the film with what you see in most Twilight Zone episodes.  I don’t want to ruin any episodes of the program for you…but you should have already watched them!  Mr. Serling and his writers reveal secrets slowly and hide information from you in such a way as to preserve the final shock of the program.  Mr. Carpenter keeps secrets from you, but they’re all related to Snake and the adventures he’s going to have.  Mr. Carpenter realized that it was not a good idea to hide how American society has changed between the year the film was made and the year the film takes place.  2013–eek!

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider an exposition dump to get your reader up to speed.  It can be fun when a writer pretends that you are in the world of the book or film, or being dropped into that world like a lobster into the pot.
  • Keep only the secrets you must.  You and the audience are on a similar journey.  You certainly want to keep some details and plot developments from your company, but you must make sure that you are both at the same places on the path.

What Can We Steal From the Feature Film Hit and Run?

Title of Work and its Form:  Hit and Run, feature film
Author: Written by Dax Shepard (on Twitter @daxshepard1).  Directed by David Palmer (on Twitter @palmerman) and Dax Shepard.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The film has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray.  As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant.  Want to see the official trailer?

Bonuses: Here is Roger Ebert’s very kind review of the film.  Here is a fun Dax Shepard/Kristen Bell interview from The Hollywood ReporterHere is a short interview about the car chases in the film.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) has a beautiful new life.  He lives in a small town with a knockout girlfriend who is as brilliant as she is attractive.  The Witness Protection Program has helped him get away from the problems in his old life and everything is perfect, until…INCITING INCIDENT.  Annie (Kristen Bell) gets a dream job in L.A.  Even though he knows he’s putting himself in danger, Charlie realizes that he must not only force Annie to go, he must abandon the Program and go with her.  COMPLICATION: Annie must get her “teaching certificate” from her creepy ex-boyfriend.  The ex-boyfriend uncovers Charlie’s real identity and gets the bad guys, Charlie’s former partners, on his trail.  This is a road trip/car chase movie; I don’t want to summarize any further; just watch the movie and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself!  (You’ll love Kristen Bell’s performance; she’s electric in everything she does.  I’m pretty excited for the Veronica Mars movie.)

Before I get into my analysis, I have to point out that Mr. Shepard is one of the folks of whom I should be terribly jealous.  Thankfully, I’m a tiny bit mature and I can get over it.  Mr. Shepard and I were both born in Michigan (Warren represent!) and both of us are writers and funny people.  Mr. Shepard played Frito Pendejo in the best film of all time: Idiocracy.  (I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, but I hope I’d be a little better than Frito.)

Mr. Shepard has pointed out in several interviews that, after having many scripts optioned into Development Hell, he wrote Hit and Run based upon what he would like to see on the screen.  Instead of trying to calculate which characters and situations and jokes would reach the largest audience (or would appeal to the most studio executives), he told the kind of story he would enjoy.  I don’t know how other writers feel, but I often wrote “for others” when I was a teen.  I would try to write like Raymond Carver.  This didn’t work.  Why?  I’m not Raymond Carver.  A writer must privilege his or her muse over the desires of others.  (At least most of the time.)

Another of the many great choices Mr. Shepard made was to devote a great deal of time to his characters, even in a car chase movie.  Think about a Transformers film.  There’s lots of stuff blowing up, sure, but we don’t really care about what is being blown up or why.  Mr. Shepard allows Charlie and Annie to have several discussions in which they share their outlooks on the world.  These characters seem like real people, so we care when the inevitable troubles erupt.  And I love that Annie is only angry with Charlie when she really needs to be.  When she does “start fights” in the film, she is doing it because of the real problems she sees in their relationship, and not just because Mr. Shepard needed a complication for the turning point of Act 2.

So Hit and Run doesn’t have a lot in common with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer do, however, mimic James Cameron in at least one important way.  Instead of springing elements upon you, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer make them very clear.  Tom Arnold plays a U.S. Marshal who doesn’t handle his weapon in a very safe manner.  This part of his character is made clear very early on.  Later in the film, the Marshal is driving.  We see the gun drop to the floorboard and KNOW what is going to happen and we KNOW it makes sense.  There’s a moment in the film in which Charlie and Annie accidentally enter the wrong hotel room.  (You need to see for yourself.)  At first, I figured this was just a funny beat meant to enhance the comedy.  Several minutes later, I was pleased to see that Mr. Shepard made that moment do some actual work in the story and it enhanced the suspense of the chase that was occurring.  The point is that a writer must lay the groundwork so the surprises in a story seem inevitable.

What Should We Steal?

  • Write the piece YOU would want to read.  Homogenized writing is often boring and why try to be Stephen King?  Stephen King is Stephen King.
  • Devote time to your characters.  Audiences are far less likely to care about lovers if they don’t have a hint as to what makes them or their situation unique.
  • Telegraph what will happen in your work to make the events seem inevitable.  I have trouble believing that a U.S. Marshal has trouble keeping his weapon safe.  I will believe this is the case if you make it clear early on and in a graceful manner.

What Can We Steal From George Saunders’s “Tenth of December”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Tenth of December,” short story
Author: George Saunders
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  You can read the story here.  You can also find the story in the 2012 anthology of Best American Short Stories.  The story headlines Mr. Saunders’s book Tenth of December.  Why not pick it up from an independent bookseller such as Reno, Nevada’s Grassroots Books?  (They seem very cool!)

Bonuses: Here is an interview in which Mr. Saunders discusses “Tenth of December.”  Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought about the story.  (She makes interesting points about the POV and describes her understandable “struggle” with the story.)  Here is Mr. Saunders’s page at This American Life.  (You know you love This American Life.)  Yes, Mr. Saunders is a very influential man.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
Robin is a slightly chubby schoolboy.  Don is a middle-aged father who is suffering from cancer and is determined to commit suicide.  How are these two unrelated characters related?  One of those good, old-fashioned twists of fate.  Don leaves his coat on a chair to help the authorities locate his body.  Unfortunately, Robin decides to try and do a good deed and bring it to him.  Robin takes a shortcut across a frozen pond.  What happens when Robin falls into the freezing water?

Mr. Saunders’s story is a very interesting study.  The narrator is a very close third person alternating between Robin and Don.  The narrator absorbs each character’s idiosyncracies; Robin is pretending he is talking to a girl he likes and that he is surrounded by supernatural woodland creatures and Don’s brain is failing because of illness.  I noticed that the story “threw” Ms. Carlson at first; the same thing happened to me, but in a different way.  For a few pages, I was under the impression that the “Nethers” were real.  (You know, short story real.)  Mr. Saunders describes the world of the Nethers and what they look like and how they act and so on, going into a great deal of depth.  Very quickly, however, I was right on track.  Mr. Saunders had to do what he did in order to immerse the reader in Robin’s brain and to establish the close POV that works so well in the story.  What lesson can we take away from this?  A reminder that the first couple pages of your piece establish the unique world in which your characters live.  Readers are willing to follow you ANYWHERE, so long as you make the ride smooth.

Think about Kafka’s Metamorphosis.  Remember the first sentence?

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

Kafka (like Saunders) doesn’t mess around when establishing his conceit.  Guess what, Kafka seems to say.  This is a world in which Gregor Samsa turned into a giant bug.  Deal with it.  Saunders has the same strong kind of declaration: Hey, reader.  You’re in the head of a young boy who likes a girl named Suzanne and has a great imagination.

The choice to craft the story from the separated points of view of two different characters gives Mr. Saunders at least two big bonuses:

  1. Mr. Saunders can offer, very gracefully, two different accounts of the same event.  And why not?  Each POV character is experiencing them on their own terms.
  2. Mr. Saunders can allow the characters the same kind of first-person confessional without allowing the other character to get in the way.  We don’t need Don’s commentary on Robin’s crush on Suzanne and Robin shouldn’t be allowed to give us his commentary as Don does what he can to keep the kid warm.

As we can all attest, coming up with titles is a pain.  How did Mr. Saunders do it?  “Tenth of December” is great because even if it’s not the date on which the story takes place, it evokes a time in which the weather (in the Northeast) is cold, but not cold enough for there to be ten feet of ice on the local lake.  I also get a Tropic of Cancer vibe from the title.  (Ooh, and that’s one of Don’s problems.  Cool.)  So here’s another title formula:

TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think of your first few pages as orientation for your reader.  Before you get in a ride in an amusement park, you spend 45 minutes in the queue, learning about the “world” of the attraction.  (Your stories are attractions too, right?)
  • Employ parallel and severely limited third-person points of view.  You gain contrast and a kind of intimacy. 
  • TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.

What Can We Steal From Barenaked Ladies’s “Odds Are”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Odds Are,” song
Author: Performed by Barenaked Ladies.  Song composed by Ed Robertson and Kevin Griffin
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The song first appeared on the album Grinning Streak.  (An awesome summer spin.)  You can purchase the album on iTunes if you do that whole thing.  Buy the album or check out tour dates at BNL’s official site.  Here are a couple seemingly BNL-sanctioned ways to hear the song on YouTube.  Here is the studio version, posted on the BNL YouTube channel:

Here is a live performance on Breakfast Television, a Canadian morning program.  They have their requisite energy, even though I’m guessing the show airs a little early in rock star time:

Bonuses: Where to start?  All of the members of the band are fun and clever men, but here is Ed doing an interview in an elevator:

It started out as a favor to Chris Hadfield, apparently, but here is BNL rocking out with an astronaut who was on the International Space Station.  The future is NOW:

As will soon be apparent, I’m a long-time fan of the band.  Here is a “Bathroom Sessions” version of one of my favorite BNL songs, “Some Fantastic:”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Textual Tension

Discussion:
Well, BNL doesn’t CC: me on any marketing e-mails, so I can’t be sure, but it seems as though “Odds Are” is the second single from their new album, Grinning Streak.  (They seem to be playing it in their promotional appearances.)  The structure of the song is solid (of course) and the acoustic guitar/vocal core of the song is augmented by the kind of sonic sweetening that great musicians can do.  It’s not a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound,” but the verses are accompanied by handclaps and the chorus is backed by the theremin-esque wail of a synthesizer wail.  (The work of Kevin Hearn?)  Tyler Stewart’s drums are solid and keep the listener chugging along and Jim Creeggan’s bass line is, as usual, melodic and interesting without calling too much attention to itself.  The lyric is pure BNL/Ed Robertson; it’s straightforward and complicated at the same time.  “Look,” Mr. Robertson seems to sing.  “You could indeed be struck by lightning or hit by a train if you try to enjoy your life.  The odds of these misfortunes, however, are so small that you may as well try to be happy.”  Here is a cool behind-the-scenes video in which Mr. Robertson says as much:

Where are the complications in the song?  Mr. Robertson employs a classic lyrical form.  I’m sure real songwriters have a name for it, but I call it “internal rhyme and release.”  Here’s an example with a bit of a rhyme scheme noted:

Struck by lightning,                                                                A

Sounds pretty frightening,                                                      A

But you know the chances are so small.                                 B

Stuck by a bee sting,                                                               C

Nothing by a “B” thing,                                                          C

Better chance you’re gonna bite it at the mall.                       B

The A and C rhymes come so close together, creating some “tension” in the listener.  The abrupt syllables are diffused by the very open vowel sound of the B rhyme.  You’ll also note that the A and C rhymes contain two syllables, while the C rhyme only consists of one.  This is what writers of all kinds do.  They create tension and release it through the use of words and images and situations.  (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get struck by lightning or stung by a bee.)

Let’s examine the tone in the lyric:

Hit by the A-Train,

Crashed in an airplane;

I wouldn’t recommend either one.

Killed by a great white

Or a meteorite;

I guess there ain’t no way to go that’s fun.

But somewhere in the world someone is gonna fall in love by the end of this song…

We all agree that being struck by lightning and shark attacks are serious problems, right?  We certainly wouldn’t make fun of a family member who experienced such a thing.  But they are extremes and extremes are fun.  Mr. Robertson injects more “fun” into the lyric by twisting “meteorite” slightly to rhyme with “great white.”  Further, in case you had forgotten, Mr. Robertson did indeed crash his plane a few years ago.  By including such a personal detail, Mr. Robertson emphasizes the theme of the piece.  If someone who has experienced a plane crash can get over the accident, you, dear listener, should be able to take the risk of being shot down by a potential love interest or something.  Mr. Robertson (through his narrator) takes the same tone you might take with a child who is scared of a monster.  Evoking an extreme specter takes the power away from the smaller ones.

When is BNL releasing the album?  Summer.  When are they going to be playing this song every night on their tour?  Summer.  What a perfect time for an upbeat song such as “Odds Are.”  Short story writers and poets aren’t exactly like rock bands.  We do, however, have albums (short story/poem collections) and we do release singles (short stories and poems) and we do give interviews and try to promote our work.  If you are a writer who tries to promote him or herself online, think about what you can do to release your own “singles.”  Me?  Occasionally, I’ll write a GWS essay about something that is kinda topical in the hopes that others will be interested because of the work being in the news.  On these lazy summer days, I will probably start posting some playlists of songs that help you actually write when you’re staring out the window into the sunny beautifulness.  Think creatively to release your own “singles.”

One final point: I made my longtime BNL fandom clear in my post about Steven Page’s “Indecision” and briefly discussed what I like about the Page/Robertson catalog.  Songwriting is a little bit more collaborative a process than is writing a novel.  Mr. Robertson collaborated with his bandmates to craft the final version of the song.  The other three men in the band are great musicians and must have added to the work a great deal.  The song was co-written with Kevin Griffin, the lead singer of Better Than Ezra.  You remember them.  Their big hit was “Good,” but I prefer “Rosealia.”

Mr. Robertson has written with Jason Plumb, too.  Here’s their AWESOME song, “Satellite.”

Why mention all of this?  Maybe writing short stories and poems and novels and creative nonfiction doesn’t have to be a solitary process.  Yes, people already do collaborate on prose, but maybe we should all make more of an effort to be like  songwriters, to lock ourselves in a room with a writer we respect and see what ends up on the page?

What Should We Steal?

  • Create tension in your work and release it at the proper time.  We pay attention to conflict and things that jar us, right?  And we feel good when someone tells us that everything will be okay.  (Sometimes literally.)
  • Evoke extremes to demonstrate more mundane ideas.  Yes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about aliens making contact with humans.  That’s not likely to happen in real life, but this extreme can help a person understand how to deal with in-laws.  You will never, ever find yourself in the dying Apollo 13 command module.  Reading about the mission (or watching the Ron Howard movie) can help you figure out your own much more mundane problems.
  • Release “singles” to show people what you are about and to gain attention for your whole body of work.  Now that you’ve heard “Odds Are,” don’t you want to hear the whole album?
  • Sit down with another writer and pound out a short short or a poem.  Who knows what will happen?

What Can We Steal From Raymond Fleischmann’s “You Need to Stop This, You Need to Disappear”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “You Need to Stop This, You Need to Disappear,” short story
Author: Raymond Fleischmann
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in the Spring 2013 issue of The Iowa Review.  The fine folks who work at the journal would certainly appreciate if you purchase the issue and/or subscribe.  You may also access the story through the Iowa Review archives on EBSCO; your local librarian will be happy to help you work your way through the database if you don’t already know how.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Balancing Story Elements

Discussion:
Carolyn sees the woman across the courtyard every morning.  At seven a.m. sharp, the middle-aged woman opens her blinds, revealing her naked body.  Carolyn finds the woman alluring; she is lured in for reasons she doesn’t understand.  Perhaps it is because Carolyn finds herself at a strange point in her life.  Her fifteen-year-old son, Cameron, is not doing very well in school.  Her high-pressure job is stressing her out, as is the sad distance in her relationship with her ex-husband.  The mother/son relationship reaches a kind of breaking point and the woman across the way plays a part.

Is this a vague summary of the story?  Yes.  It’s also an appropriate one.  The narrative thread of the story reflects the mental state of its protagonist.  Carolyn is not in crisis, really, she’s just in a kind of plateau in her life.  This malaise is reflected in the narrative.  In this story, Mr. Fleischmann has chosen to examine character closely instead of telling a Michael Bay-thrill-a-minute tale.  (One that’s much more interesting than a Michael Bay film and one that will induce less vertigo…)  Mr. Fleischmann therefore boosts the power and amount of characterization that he does in the story.  The reader is immersed in Carolyn’s perspective and is invited to learn about many facets of her personality and her relationship with her son.

Plot your stories along the same lines of this completely made-up radar chart that doesn’t relate to Mr. Fleischmann’s story:

story chart

You don’t need to maximize EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE ELEMENT that could be in your story, but there need to be a few well-chosen peaks here and there.  Mr. Fleischmann’s story peaks in characterization and in the beauty of his language.  I happen to be a fairly plot-centric reader, and I was with Mr. Fleischmann the whole time because he gave me plenty to enjoy, even if he didn’t give me my very favorite kind of story.

Remember: characters are people, my friend.  And how do we find out what people are really like?  By seeing how they act in a number of different situations.  Mr. Fleischmann is very careful to show us how Carolyn reacts to a wide range of events.  She sees the naked woman, she…confirms something about her son, she punches out her editing work like a pro.  Giving her these varied tasks allows the reader to get closer to her.

Here’s another way to think of it:  do you really know your friends at work?  Really KNOW them?  You only see them in one setting during the same time of day and around the same people.  Now imagine your work friends at a bachelor or bachelorette party…NOW you’ll learn what they’re really like!

Titles are hard, aren’t they?  Let’s examine the title of this story: “You Need to Stop This, You Need to Disappear.”  Before you read the story, you might be a little puzzled as to what it might mean.  In retrospect, however, it becomes pretty clear that this is what Carolyn might say to the woman across the way.  Once you read the story, you know why she might say it, too.  Therefore, here is…

TITLE FORMULA #24601: A crucial line of unspoken dialogue.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that you have offered your reader SOMETHING that will hold their attention.  If the plot of your story is extremely straightforward, you may want to enhance other elements.
  • Force your characters into different kinds of situations.  The true measure of a man or woman (even a made-up one) is how they deal with different problems.
  • Title Formula #24601: A crucial line of unspoken dialogue.  (Sounds like something Raymond Carver might do.)

What Can We Steal From Lylanne Musselman’s “The Art of Seeing Value”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “The Art of Seeing Value,” poem
Author: Lylanne Musselman
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem made its debut in New Verse News, a very cool poetry blog.  (Every day, editor James Penha posts a new poem written from a politically progressive viewpoint.)  Ms. Musselman’s poem can be found here.  Go read it if you don’t already know the poem.

Bonuses: Here is a poem Ms. Musselman placed in the Tipton Poetry Journal.  Here is a poem she published in [PANK].  Here is a blog in which Ms. Musselman chronicles her adventures in art.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Social Involvement

Discussion:
Did you hear about this story in the news?  After decades of severe–and allegedly? criminal–mismanagement by those in charge, Detroit is in serious debt.  (If you really want to read about a crazy mayoral situation, learn about Kwame Kilpatrick.)  Some folks want to sell the very valuable art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to raise some revenue.  Ms. Musselman’s poem is a valuable part of the discussion surrounding such a plan.  She describes a trip she took (from Toledo, apparently) to see a van Gogh “on loan from Paris.”

Ms. Musselman’s poem illuminates both the intent of the artist with respect to this specific work and the crucial part that art can play in the life of a city.

I love that Ms. Musselman turns her poem into a dialogue.  The first-person narrator describes her visit to see the van Gogh and brings in the thoughts of others, those who would “prostitute/ irreplaceable art.”  I don’t know if these are real comments that Ms. Musselman plucked from the Internet, but they certainly sound as though they could have been.  Ms. Musselman chooses wisely, including comments that directly contradict her primary point.  Making money is not always as important as feeding our souls (whether real or metaphorical)…some folks have chosen not to interact with art and simply don’t understand its purpose.  The story in Ms. Musselman’s poem is interesting enough, but including outside comments opens up the poem a great deal.

You may ask yourself why Ms. Musselman wrote this as a poem when it could easily have been a very short piece of creative nonfiction/memoir.  What does she gain by casting the work in poetry instead of prose?  I like the way that the lineation adds some momentum to the poem.  Looking at a world-class painting up close is a very big deal and an experience to be savored.  Ms. Musselman recreates that feeling by

forcing the reader

to stop every few

words to truly

understand

what she felt.

What Should We Steal?

  • Open up your first person narrator by working in other voices.  First person writing can sometimes seem claustrophobic.  Avoid this by allowing your narrator to get out of his or her head on occasion.
  • Choose the genre that will best service your idea.  In part, Ms. Musselman wanted to demonstrate to the reader that art is too important to a community to sell, so she cast her experience in such a way that would inspire others to agree with her.

What Can We Steal From Glenn Eichler & Nick Bertozzi’s Stuffed?

Title of Work and its Form:  Stuffed, graphic novel
Author: Written by Glenn Eichler.  Art by Nick Bertozzi (on Twitter @NickBertozzi.)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was published by First Second and can be found at great bookstores everywhere.  If you’re in Reno, Nevada, ask the fine people at Sundance Bookstore to get the book for you if they don’t already have it.  (You’ll also enjoy their frequent poetry readings and other events.)

Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Eichler did in which he discussed DariaHere is an article in which Mr. Eichler describes how he came up with the idea for Stuffed.  Mr. Eichler currently writes for The Colbert Report; watch it on Comedy Central if you have cable.

Here is a very cool video in which Mr. Bertozzi introduces himself, sketches a self-portrait and shows off the comic books he created as a child.  Writers will appreciate the video, but it’s a must-watch for cartoonists and artists.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Dealing with Controversial Issues

Discussion:
I’m mildly jealous of Mr. Bertozzi because my artistic ability tops out at stick figures.  I have tremendous healthy jealousy for Mr. Eichler because he wrote for Beavis & Butthead, co-created Daria and now works on The Colbert Report.  In 2009, the two gentlemen collaborated to create Stuffed, a graphic novel about Timothy Johnson, a health care administrator whose father dies, leaving him, among other items, the items in the “museum,” a collection of oddities.  The most notable of these items, of course, is a stuffed human being.  The “Bloodthirsty Savage,” as his father called it decades earlier, caused a lot of trauma in Timothy’s childhood.  Whenever he misbehaved, his father would say that the Savage would “cut him into pieces” to be thrown into a cooking pot.  Timothy can’t bear to have this preserved human being thrown away, so he takes it home, determined to figure out the proper way to deal with the man.  The matter is very complicated; Timothy’s hippie brother is a fan of trepanation, making it hard to reason with the guy.  Even worse, international diplomacy is such that neither Kenya nor Tanzania will repatriate the body.  It’s not giving too much away to say that the situation is resolved; Timothy works very closely with Dr. Bright, a curator at the museum he originally hoped might take the body.

It bears mentioning that Mr. Eichler is an admitted literary thief.  (The good kind.)  In one of the bonus pieces above, Mr. Eichler explains that he got the idea for Stuffed when he

read a story in The New York Times a while ago about a Spanish museum that nixed an African country’s request to return a stuffed human skin to its motherland.

A very sad real-life story can often become a worthwhile fictional story, even one with as much comedy as Stuffed.  Yes, we’re talking about a stuffed human being.  Is it okay to insert such an object into a comedy?  I contend that the dark humor of the piece is strengthened by the VERY HIGH STAKES involved.  Both comedy and tragedy require us to CARE about what is going on and to whom.  The humor in the book is never really directed at the man who is eventually called the “Warrior.”

While Timothy is scared of the Warrior (thanks, in part, to his father), the whole point of the book is that Timothy and Dr. Bright are jumping through many hoops to try and give the man the dignified burial he deserves.  The humor isn’t directed at the dead man.  Timothy drives through the streets with a stuffed African man in his back seat; we laugh at onlookers shooting him angry looks.  (How are they supposed to know that Timothy is trying to right a wrong?)  There is humor in the racial tension in the book.  Both Dr. Bright and Timothy are good people, and the hippie brother adds some tension with his somewhat less-than-enlightened views.  Mr. Eichler wrenches comedy and drama out of the situation as he talks through big issues.  Isn’t this how life works?  Different kinds of people actually have contact with each other and come out on the other side with a new understanding.

Let’s face it: if everyone agreed on every big issue, life would be super boring.  Mr. Eichler is smart enough to have Dr. Bright’s wife disagree with him slightly.  After the hippie brother acts in an unpleasant manner, Dr. Bright goes home to talk with his wife.  If Dr. and the Missus agreed wholeheartedly, the scene would be boring.  Fortunately, there are meaty issues to discuss.  Mrs. Bright points out that the field of anthropology was used to justify racism in the past.  Dr. Bright (who has an advanced degree in the subject) defends the field.  Mrs. Field points out that her husband changed his name from “Hussein” to “Howard” instead of something more explicitly African.  Dr. Bright explains that he didn’t want to be associated with Saddam and that their child is named Jamal.  While the arguments over race and colonialism in the book are heated, the characters treat each other like human beings.

Most importantly, these discussions are not boring.  There are plenty of works about BIG ISSUES that are super duper boring.  (I won’t name any, but I’m thinking of at least one.)  Your characters should not be treated like clashing ideologies.  Mr. Eichler makes the right choice; each of the characters remains a real person who simply has strong convictions.

I can’t end this essay without pointing out a little something that we can steal from Mr. Bertozzi’s art.  I love the section near the end when Dr. Bright makes an impassioned speech about why it is so important to bury the Warrior in Africa.  The speech is beautifully written, but it’s clear that Mr. Bertozzi understood this was a crucial moment in the story.  He breaks format; instead of planting comic book boxes on the page, he set Dr. Bright on one side of a double-page spread and allowed himself to draw/paint three beautiful images of the African savannah and its starry sky.  Mr. Bertozzi understood that this was one of his showcase moments in the piece and allowed himself to demonstrate his skills.  The same principle applies to opera singers who know when their big aria is about to begin.  To ballplayers who step to the plate one run down in the bottom of the ninth with a runner in scoring position.  A writer must understand the parts of his or her work that are most important and give them a little more TLC; those moments allow you to really show off what you can do!

What Should We Steal?

  • Equip your comedy with the same high stakes as you give your tragedy.  Great comedy, just like great drama, is born of personal pain and must have consequences.
  • Ensure that your discussions of BIG ISSUES are also entertaining, either dramatic or comedic. Arguments are had between people, not ideologies.
  • Indulge yourself in your showcase moments.  Put extra attention and care into the most crucial parts of your work.