Month: October 2013

What Can We Steal From Sonja Livingston’s “Something Like Joy”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Something Like Joy,” creative nonfiction
Author: Sonja Livingston (on Twitter @sonjalivingston)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay debuted in the Spring 2013 issue of River Teeth, a great journal of nonfiction edited by Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman.  You can get back issues from those kind folks or you can even purchase issues for the Kindle for a very reasonable price.

Bonuses:  Here is a Bookslut interview with Ms. Livingston about her recent memoir, GhostbreadHere is Ms. Livingston’s author page at AGNI Online, complete with links to two of her pieces.  Very cool!  Here is a podcast by FM89.3 WYPL’s Author Interview Program in which she discusses Ghostbread.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
In this essay, Sonja Livingston does her laundry.  Yes, there’s much more to it.  She went to a laundromat far from home, traveling “nearly twenty minutes from the big houses and fine streets” in an attempt to have some solitude and grading time.  The spell of introspection is broken by a woman who may be named Joyelle, a kind woman who works in a nearby school cafeteria.  The small talk begins innocuously enough, but before long, Joyelle asks THE QUESTION: “one that didn’t used to come, or when it did could still be answered with the sort of possibility that let both me and the asker off the hook.”  Ms. Livingston finishes her laundry and leaves, but not before admiring a particularly beautiful Memphis sky.

This piece takes place during Ms. Livingston’s trip to the laundromat and is told in real time.  I really admire work that boasts a solid and logical structure, one that mimics the natural rhythms of life.  Why?  Because we can all relate to these sorts of things.  We’re all bound by time, though many of our characters (real or fictional) are not.  By telling the story of WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I WENT TO THE LAUNDROMAT, Ms. Livingston eases the reader.  We all know what such an afternoon is like.  We’re also allowed to stop wondering about some of the exposition.  We learn very quickly where the protagonist is, what she is doing, and so on.  We’re left with the important question: why.  (Aside from her need to wash her clothes, of course.)

A couple pages in, I was wondering about the “why.”  Thankfully, Ms. Livingston gets right to it.  After the boring small talk is out of the way–How are you today?  What do you do?–Joyelle gets to the important personal stuff, asking Ms. Livingston why she moved to Memphis.  The emotional depth of the conversation increases, of course.  The climax of the piece occurs when Joyelle asks Ms. Livingston if she has any kids.  This question results in a kind of confession.  For most people, children are an inevitability.  The Census Bureau reports, however, that 19.2 percent of American women between the ages of 35 and 44 have no children.  That may sound like a lot, but those who are in any kind of minority are often misunderstood by the majority.  Another example: at least 14% of Americans profess a lack of religious belief.  There are many who have misconceptions about friends and family members who simply don’t believe in a god or gods.

Ms. Livingston gets to a deep emotional truth while describing a scene as mundane as doing laundry.  How?  By recounting a discussion between two people…it’s as simple as that.  Every situation in which we find ourselves offers opportunities for emotional enlightment, so long as we’re open to the possibility.

Look what Ms. Livingston does a few times in the piece.  Before a big moment, she goes into a POETIC INTERJECTION.  The narrative is on pause while the author offers a moment of beautifully phrased reflection.  See?

“No kids?”

“No,” I say.  “Nope.”

It’s odd the way the tender places are not touched so much by those we knows as by strangers sitting in metal chairs while laundry tumbles behind small circles of glass.  Funny how such moments come between talk of old TV shows and spin cycles, while the man in the pickup outside revs his engine, waiting for his girlfriend to switch her load.

“You never wanted any?”  She’s looking straight at me now, silver curls catching the light.

Not only does the paragraph contain pretty phrases, but the poetic interjection is, by definition, the author/narrator/protagonist exerting a lot of control over the reader.  He or she understands what is going on, but is also guided in understanding what the author wants them to think about the situation.

Ms. Livingston’s piece is a powerful reminder: BRING A NOTEBOOK WHEREVER YOU GO!  You never know when you’re going to have a fascinating chance encounter with a waiter that should become a story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appropriate a natural structure as a vehicle for your abstract and complicated and beautiful idea.  Stories can happen and epiphanies can be experienced during your five-minute wait at Starbucks.
  • Search for the real emotional truth in the otherwise mundane.  We’re happy to read your 5,000-word account of what it was like when you got your latte…if you bring out some great emotional truth and keep us entertained.
  • Employ “poetic interjections” to guide your reader’s analysis.  Your reader may not understand the psychological weight of what is happening in your piece of creative nonfiction.  A poetic interjection can prepare the reader or allow him or her to digest what has happened.

The GWS 10: Ten Elements of Craft That Writers Should Steal From Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed five elements of craft we can steal from The Hunger Games books.  For Part 2, I thought I would take a close look at some of the prose Ms. Collins put into her book.  Let’s jump right in like Katniss diving into the water that keeps her from the Cornucopia:

6. Open your piece with promises that don’t take too long to fulfill.

Let’s compare the opening of the first Twilight book to that of Catching Fire.  The former begins thus:

hunger12Yes, Ms. Meyer starts her story in the middle of some action, but the tension introduced by this opening scene is not going to be resolved for a very long time.  Further, Ms. Meyer brings up a lot of questions and offers a great deal of vague prose.  Who is this “hunter?”  How is the first-person narrator about to die?  Even if we’re curious about this poorly defined conflict, we have quite a way to go until we figure out what is going on.

Think of it this way.  Many parents like to record the moment they tell their children that the family is going to Disney World.  Look at how happy this young lady is upon hearing the news:

Now imagine that the mother said, “We’re going to Disney World…eight years from now.”

Ms. Collins begins Catching Fire thus:

hunger11

No, there is no hunter literally stalking Katniss as she reclines on the rock.  There is, however, a great deal of tension.  Katniss is weary.  She’s sore.  She needs a vacation.  But Effie and the others will be around to bother her very soon.  This tension will be capitalized upon very soon.  More importantly, Ms. Collins doesn’t present a zillion questions that won’t be answered for a long time.  The opening page also offers a great deal of characterization and contributes to the tone of the book.

7. Avoid weighing down your prose with redundant and bloated dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are like balsa wood.  They can hold things together, but you shouldn’t put too much weight on them.  Look at the bloat in some of the dialogue from Twilight:

hunger9ADVERBS.  SOOOOOOOOOOO MANY ADVERBS.  ADVERBS EVERYWHERE, AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE.  Let your characters do some of the work.  You’ll wear your reader down if EVERY line is modified in some way.  Further, bloated dialogue tags can result in redundancies.  Alice’s response at the bottom of the page is, by definition, an agreement with Emmett’s statement…but Ms. Meyer tells you again that Alice is in agreement.

Allow your characters’ statements to carry the emotion.  In general, you should avoid the adverb unless your character is taking a tone we wouldn’t expect from the line.  For example:

“I’m so angry at you because you’re irresponsible!” Ken’s ex-girlfriend shouted angrily through her rage with her eyes in an infuriated squint.

Don’t we know that Ken’s ex-girlfriend is justifiably angry and filled with rage and fury simply based upon what she says between the quotation marks?  Now look at a page of Ms. Collins’s dialogue:

hunger10This exchange comes toward the beginning of Catching Fire.  Katniss and President Snow are having a very calm argument while sizing each other up.  The lines themselves do all the work and the reader doesn’t need to wade through a zillion adverbs.

8. Create tension with nagging injuries instead of catastrophic ones.

Somewhat early in Catching Fire, Katniss finds herself on the wrong side of the now-electrified border fence.  Ms. Everdeen knows she needs to get back home before she gets caught.  Ordinarily, this is not a problem for our Girl on Fire; she’s a skilled athlete.  After climbing up a tree, she makes her way across a limb.  She’s almost home free when…

hunger8Under normal circumstances, it’s no problem for Katniss to get home and to convince the bad guys that she has been good.  If anyone notices her limp, however, they will ask questions that could have problematic answers.  There’s a delightful tension to the scene with the Everdeen Family and the Peacekeepers.  Will someone notice Katniss is in pain?  The suspense is killing me!

I may cry as I bring up another example…

Ordinarily, it’s no problem for Miguel Cabrera to mash the ball into the stands.

When he has a groin injury, however, long-suffering Tiger fans must suffer through a great deal of suspense that ends in heartbreak.  Sigh.

9. Place your characters in a well-defined and realistic world, but avoid overwhelming your reader.

Panem doesn’t necessarily need to be more than just THE WORLD IN WHICH THE HUNGER GAMES TAKES PLACE.  A ten-year-old who reads these books isn’t required to draw the kind of map I showed you in Part 1 in order to understand what is happening.  That child doesn’t need to know what “panem” means.  Hardcore devotees, of course, are welcome to perform complicated analyses of the economic and sociopolitical conditions in each of the Districts.  Ms. Collins manages to make Katniss’s world feel real, but doesn’t force me to get a pad and paper and keep notes on everything.  Here’s an example:

hunger6Okay, so I could do the math.  District 4 has a lot of waterfront property.  District 3 must have a lot of factories and highly skilled engineers.  District 8 is the textile center of Panem.  Importantly, the sections such as these aren’t homework.  All I need to know in order to enjoy the story is that each of the Districts has different resources.  The world feels like a real place, even though every acre is a part of Ms. Collins’s daydream.

10. Tamp down that desire to write beautiful poetry when flowery prose is inappropriate.

Ms. Collins is capable of writing some beautiful Harlan Ellison/Ray Bradbury/Jane Austen-esque sentences.  The first-person protagonist of The Hunger Games, while bright, is not Shakespeare.  Katniss, therefore, shouldn’t be given the kind of complicated lines that would be out of reach for someone who grew up poor in a District with poor schools.  Here’s an example where I feel that Ms. Collins is balancing her ability and desire to knock you out with poetry, but balances the urge with the reality of the character she created:

hunger7The sentences are often short.  There are some killer phrases, but the diction is not too high.  As always, our ultimate goal is to serve the story.  In this instance, Ms. Collins served the story by holding back.

What Can We Steal From Andrew Brogdon’s “WE’D LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER AS THE NEW FACE OF OUR INFANT CLOTHING LINE”?

Title of Work and its Form: “WE’D LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER AS THE NEW FACE OF OUR INFANT CLOTHING LINE,” poem
Author: Andrew Brogdon
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Issue 10.4 of DIAGRAM, a great online literary journal.  Read Mr. Brogdon’s poem here.

Bonus: Mr. Brogdon happens to be a brilliant computer programmer-type guy in addition to being a great poet.  As a gift to the writing community, he created Submission Mojo, a free resource that allows you to track where you send your work.  Check it outHere is an article Christopher Higgs wrote about one of Mr. Brogdon’s past ventures, a web site that created poetry out of Internet search results.  Here is a poem that Mr. Brogdon published in Pleiades, a great journal.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Playfulness

Discussion:
This twenty-one-line poem consists of twenty-one statements from people who are seemingly surrounding a girl who is being made up in preparation for a photo shoot.  The make-up artists make comments about the girl’s cuteness, the hairstylist asks the girl to shift her head, the photographer makes adjustments to the lens.  Mr. Brogdon’s shrewdest turn comes in the last line:

Face the lights sweetheart look at your mother

A member of the crew (perhaps the photographer) asks the young lady to turn her head in her mother’s direction.  Mr. Brogdon hadn’t named the mother before this point; does the mother matter to all of the people who are buzzing around?  Does the girl?  One could also believe that the last line is spoken by the mother…a woman who is only given voice in the very last line of the poem.

Mr. Brogdon often reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary poets: Denise Duhamel.  His stuff is fun and he enjoys referring to popular culture, but he also demonstrates a passion for the music that words can make.  After you read the first few lines of “WE’D LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER…,”  you discover that each statement is related by the transition between lines.  The sentence is not quite over when it cuts, and we never really see the beginning of the subsequent statement.

I was reminded of that old “Miss Suzie” rhyme…thing that little kids do in order to allow themselves to swear without getting in trouble:

The device seems similar, right?  What is the effect?  Mr. Brogdon creates a breathless atmosphere around the young girl.  We read about her in the title and now there are tons of people around her who are telling her that she’s pretty and primping her hair and dolloping makeup on her face.

The best thing about children is that they don’t have the same responsibilities and prejudices that adults have.  The world hasn’t yet sucked the joy out of their hearts.  Barenaked Ladies made an album for children called Snacktime; one of the songs is based on the classic joke:

Why was Six afraid of Seven?  Because Seven ate Nine.

BNL turned the joke into a song and was able to retain the playfulness and joy that is felt the first time a kid hears the joke:

Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that words have power.  Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, used soaring oratory to help convince stragglers that we should all treat each other with respect.  Some kinds of words have more power than others.  Verbs are typically some high-octane words.  And why not?  They’re all about action!  Now, Mr. Brogdon doesn’t begin each line with a verb, but each line DOES begin with a word that has a lot of power.  See?

brogon first linesThese lines have additional punch because Mr. Brogdon begins them with significant words.  Now compare this poem to the work of a far inferior poet.  Let’s look at the first words in the lines of one of my poems.  I wrote this piece for my favorite Ohio State athletics site, Eleven Warriors.

ken first wordsIsn’t it easy to see which poem has more power and why?  If I have any excuse, it’s that my poem is in blank verse, so I had a little less of a choice as to how my lines would begin…but the point stands.

What Should We Steal?

  • Lift a device used by children.  Kids LOVE playing with language; why not put yourself into the same mindset?
  • Begin your lines with striking words.  Even though your readers will think of your poem in terms of sentences on some level, the first words of each line still leave a lasting impression.

What Can We Steal From Ron Carlson’s “Gray Gumbo”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gray Gumbo,” short story
Author: Ron Carlson
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was presented as part of TriQuarterly‘s first online issue, number 144.  You can read the story for free right here.

Bonuses: Everyone should read the wonderful book Ron Carlson Writes a Story.  Why not purchase a copy from the fine folks at Graywolf Press?  Tim Hedges did this interesting interview with Mr. Carlson for Fiction Writers Review.  Hey, did you know that writers don’t simply exist on the page?  Here’s a video clip of Mr. Carlson:

(Isn’t it fun to see the face and hear the voice behind the stories you love?)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Breaking the Rules

Discussion:
What a great story.  Marcus and Harmon are friends who have decided to do some hunting and fishing.  Only problem is, it’s not fishing season.  After the men cast their flies into the water, they spot Deputy Kenneth Carbon from Fish and Game.  Marcus and Harmon realize they are poaching and Deputy Carbon may not look so favorably on their crime.  Then they realize that Deputy Carbon is doing some poaching of his own–he’s making time with Theodora Elt, the mayor’s fiancée.  How does the story end?  Read it for yourself!

I’ve been a Ron Carlson fan for some time, ever since a friend lent me a copy of his collection A Kind of Flying.  I geeked out a while later, when I went to the One Story table at AWP and saw that the 100th issue of the journal was a Ron Carlson story.  Then the nice woman who sold me the chapbook asked me if I didn’t want to have Mr. Carlson sign it…he was standing a few feet away.  This story is a good representation of what I love about Mr. Carlson’s work.  He’s breaking a few rules, but those violations somehow only make the work better.  The first three paragraphs seem like a bit of a throat clearing.  Mr. Carlson offers nearly a page of beautiful description that is seemingly disconnected from the narrative.  Here’s a taste:

The clay flat at Locomotive Springs on the desolate northern tip of the Great Salt Lake is made of gray gumbo, a clay in which only dog sage will grow, and bitter-leaved weed, which is a dun green and ugly and which no animal can eat.

For a little while, I wondered why Mr. Carlson waited to get into the narrative proper: “Marcus and I had driven out…”  I loved the description of the way that the gray gumbo “turns to a gray grease that is a remarkable element in its similarity to lard.”  That stuff was beautiful, but it seemed irrelevant.  Could Mr. Carlson have been letting me down?

Nope.  The titular pasty substance is responsible for the ending of the story.  Marcus and Harmon are trying to elude Deputy Kenneth Carbon and the grease facilitates the escape.  Lo and behold, the men have a great story to tell after the Fish and Game truck gets mired in the slop.  Here’s the difference between a great writer such as Mr. Carlson and an inferior writer such as myself: I would have started with the fourth paragraph and would have lost the beautiful description and foreshadowing.

I was also wondering when the narrative was going to “kick in.”  The characters were enjoying nature and wildlife for a page or two.  Was Mr. Carlson going to add some tension to an otherwise placid scene?  Of course.  Mr. Carlson introduced the idea that they were poaching.  Now, poaching isn’t as serious a crime as it was in medieval England, but no one wants to be reprimanded by a game warden.  Further, such a violation could prevent Marcus and Harmon from getting fish and game licenses in the future.  Tension!  Some of this is personal taste, I suppose, but I tend to prefer stories that center upon a tangible conflict of some kind.  A big conflict with big stakes that have meaningful consequences for the characters.

I think my favorite thing about this story is the way in which every element is thematically linked.  Best of all, Mr. Carlson doesn’t achieve this unity with a heavy hand.  In the world of the story, two men are poaching (taking sustenance that belongs to someone else)…then they see the game warden poaching the mayor’s bride to be (taking sustenance that “belongs” to someone else).  The gray gumbo that makes it hard to reach their fishing hole is the same gray gumbo that turns this expedition into a story the two men will tell forever.  The men themselves are united; they know each other very well and both had a crush on Theodora Elt and both enjoy the same beer and both speak in the same playful tone once they’re on the run.  Everything works in the story.  This kind of unity is not easy to achieve; I think it’s the kind of thing that will only happen once you’ve written a lot of stories and thought about the work of others quite a bit.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that everything in your story works to serve the narrative, even if the elements only do so in retrospect.  That beautiful three-paragraph description at the start of your short should relate to the narrative.
  • Avoid going too long without some kind of organic tension in your story.  We’re willing to hang with you for a while, but we need some conflict on which to hang our attention at some point.
  • Create thematic unity in your work.  What a wonderful gift when it turns out that everything in your piece is working toward the benefit of the whole.

GWS Essay: “Weird Al” Yankovic and Literary Citizenship

Ladies and gentlemen, I had a fascinating Sunday, October 20th.  I am the kind of person who is lucky enough never to have a day off.  Even if I’m not teaching a class or “working” on a specific day, I’m still working.  Grading papers.  Finishing stories.  Figuring out what I want to do with a novel that will likely never be published.  Writing essays for GWS or making audio recordings for a literary podcast that is kind enough to like my stuff.

After I had already written a GWS essay, I came across this link in one of my social media feeds: Cathy Day’s principles of Literary Citizenship.  Ms. Day (accessible on Twitter @daycathy) reminds all of us…and that means ALL of us that we are charged to fulfill some responsibilities in exchange for being part of the literary community.  Or the artistic community.  Or an American.  Or a human being.  The blunt and simple truth is that we ALL benefit from storytelling and from music and from visual art, even if we don’t know it.  Shoot, even I will admit that we’re all part of the fashion scene, even though Tyra Banks would die from laughing if she saw me.  (Clothed or unclothed, I suppose.)  If you need to be convinced, take a look at this scene from The Devil Wears Prada.  Fantine learns that she’s a part of the fashion world, even though she thinks she’s a proud agnostic:

Ms. Day is very polite about it: if we love literature, we all need to be good literary citizens.  How can we do so?  I’ll address each of her sensible points.

  1. Write “charming” notes to writers.  This is an overlooked part of our culture in spite of the technological advances that make communication “easier.”  I have reviewed literary journals for quite some time and some writers have written to thank me for the kind words I had to say about their work.  Not only do I like those writers more, but they gave me a happy jolt when I saw their e-mails.  As the Headmaster/Lord High Executioner/Dictator of Great Writers Steal, I have had the extreme pleasure of contacting writers whose works I’ve examined…I think they truly appreciate having critical attention focused on their work, which was part of my intention in the first place.
  2. Interview writers.  Well, it took me a while to do this one on GWS, but I finally did so and plan to do more.  Not only did I LOVE reading Odd Men Out by Matt Betts, but I found him to be an awesome guy.
  3. Talk up (informally) or review (formally) books you like.  I do this all the time.  Not on Goodreads or Amazon, but on a personal basis with students and people I meet who eventually regret meeting me.
  4. If you want to be published in journals, you must read and support them.  Ms. Day is right.  The editors of lit journals don’t drive Maseratis.  If you want PBS to be around, you need to support it.  If you want lit journals to be around, you need to support them.
  5. If you want to publish books, buy books.  I don’t want to talk about how many books I buy.  I also don’t want to talk about the fact that, depending on who you believe, nearly half of all college graduates never read another book.  Hey, but at least Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty and Kalexander Kardashian are doing okay.
  6. Be passionate about books and writing, because passion is infectious. I agree with this point, too.  So many people are passive passive passive.  They can’t do anything because they can’t do anything.  They want time to read, but they need to watch Ms. Boo Boo and Mr. Dynasty instead.  Once you break through a person’s shell, they start to get excited.

So.  How does all of this relate to “Weird Al” Yankovic, one of my first heroes in writing and comedy?  I was looking over a story–wish me luck with it–when I noticed this tweet come through the GWS Twitter feed:

If you’d like to chat, I’ll be at this number for the next 15 minutes. http://t.co/NWfVYP7I1V

— Al Yankovic (@alyankovic) October 20, 2013


The URL led to this image:

weirdalThat’s right…”Weird Al” Yankovic was standing at an airport pay phone, ready to talk with fans.  I dialed once: busy.  Twice: busy.  I fixed a few paragraphs of my story and called again: busy.  So I tried again…there was a pause.  Then a familiar voice said, “Hello?”

My years of improv comedy served me well.  I told Mr. Yankovic (one must be formal with the creative mind behind works such as “One More Minute,” of course) how long I had been a fan and how I’ve seen his film UHF a thousand times.  I told him that, as much as I love his parodies, his original songs are far closer to my heart.  Best of all, I told him that I even included him on Great Writers Steal.  See?  I wrote about “You Don’t Love Me Anymore.”  

I knew that Mr. Yankovic had plenty of other fans who wanted to speak with him, so I let him get onto other folks, but not before I made him laugh by suggesting he use some Purell after using a public pay phone.

So I spoke to Mr. Yankovic for less than a minute, but that brief experience was a pretty cool gift.  And I’m guessing that he enjoyed hearing other fans drip praise in his ear for the quarter of an hour before he had to go through airport security.  And what wonderful synchronicity; I read Ms. Day’s essay on the same day that I got to fulfill her #1 requirement for literary citizenship.

Perhaps there’s a corollary that applies to greatly successful writers:

Be available to your fans and those who would like to send you “charming” notes.

Now, I love Stephen King, but I don’t have any access to the gentleman.  One can certainly understand why he might not stand out on a streetcorner with a sign that says, “I’m Stephen King.”  I suppose that a “charming” note sent to his publisher might get to him…but he’s a busy guy.  Mr. King, however, has done an AMA for Reddit.

Social media offers powerful opportunities for “prominent” writers to receive the kindnesses that we’re all responsible for sharing.  Maybe you tweet at Joyce Carol Oates…and once in a while, maybe JCO will tweet you back.  In the course of my near-year of doing GWS, I’ve sent my share of “charming” notes to writers whose books don’t yet occupy an entire shelf in the library; it’s a pleasure to focus critical attention on writers and works that may be otherwise overlooked, and I enjoy receiving kindness in return.  (Though I do long for the day when up-and-coming writers receive as much attention as that Duck Dynasty guy.  What kind of a name is “Duck” anyway?)

So I had a good Sunday.  I finished a short story, did a bunch of other things and got to tell one of my favorite writers what I think of him.  Being a good literary citizen is quite fulfilling!

Appendix:

Don’t worry; I won’t leave you hanging.  Enjoy some cool tunes from Mr. Yankovic’s VEVO channel.

“Close But No Cigar” is an awesome song and the video was directed by John K.!

I’m pretty sure that Mr. Yankovic was thinking about me and my romantic history when he wrote this song:

Gotta love the Beach Boys sound of “Pancreas.”

What Can We Steal From Issue #1 of Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan’s Cryptozoic Man?

Title of Work and its Form: Issue 1 of Cryptozoic Man, comic book
Author: Story by Bryan Johnson (Twitter) and Walter Flanagan (Twitter).  Written by Johnson, pencils by Flanagan.  Inks by Chris Ivy.  Colors by Wayne Jansen (Twitter).  Letters by Marshall Dillon.
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The comic can be found at all fine comic book stores.  Why not consider making a trip to Oswego NY’s The Comic Shop?  If you don’t know where your local comic book shop is, you can find it here.  The fine folks at Dynamite Entertainment will be happy to sell you a copy, too.

Bonus: Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan are stars of the AMC program Comic Book Men.  As of this writing, the show is available for streaming on Netflix.  The gentlemen are also responsible for the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave podcast.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythology

Discussion:
Cryptozoic Man is an interesting comic book that had an interesting genesis.  Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan pitched Dynamite with the concept…and you can see what that looked like.  Why?  Because it was included as a scene in Comic Book Men:

I usually write my own summaries, but I think that Dynamite says it best:

Alan Ostman, a middle-aged husband/father, sees his life quickly unravel when his daughter goes missing on a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest…Bigfoot country. After Gray aliens abduct him from a roadside bar, he learns that the fate of the world is dependent on trapping the world’s most legendary cryptids…not to mention defeating a psychopath in a pig-shaped leather bondage mask, Alan knows he has his work cut out for him.

Yes, Stan Lee may have been practicing a little hyperbole when he said that there’s never been a story like Cryptozoic Man, but he’s not too far off the mark.  The book is a mélange of references to monster movies, mythical creatures and science fiction literature.  In only the first few pages, I see the following:

  • The alien from Alien
  • Bigfoot/Sasquatch
  • The Loch Ness Monster and similar cryptids
  • Alien “grays”
  • The scary three-color things from War of the Worlds.

So the authors have made it clear that they are playing in the same sandbox as countless other writers.  People have told stories like these for thousands of years; they sit around a campfire and offer an explanation for that feeling of paralysis when you’re almost asleep.  Why, it’s an incubus (male) or succubus (female), of course, sitting on your chest and preparing to have sex with you.

IncubusHow do you explain when a person’s behavior changes once a month.  The person is a sane and reasonable human being…but will turn into an absolute monster every twenty-eight days, striking terror into the hearts of everyone around.

WerewolfYou know, like a werewolf.  (What else could you have been thinking?)

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan tap into our primal fears by borrowing all of these concepts.  None of us believe that we’re going to transform into a half-monster, but don’t we fear “changing” into something that we don’t want to be?  These stories are a part of us; Cryptozoic Man benefits because we can all relate on some level.

As I understand it, Cryptozoic Man is intended to be a short-run series.  Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan, therefore, don’t have much time to waste.  The first page is illustrated in sepia tone.  Mr. Johnson offers a hint that the suburban paradise in the art is now gone:

“Thin veneer of pretense lends readily to delusion.  In the rippling currents of the rueful stream, regard exists…that somehow, an adulteress would be favored above the flotsam of humanity.”

Then you turn the page and BOOM.  A two-page spread in which the transformed Alan fights a number of scary, weird-looking monsters.  Turn the page again and Alan tells you about the daughter that motivates him to kill the pig man bad guy.  You have a responsibility to set everything up for your reader, no matter the length of the work.  If you’re writing War and Peace II: Good God Y’all, you can take your sweet time.  In a limited comic series, you better be snappy.

Think of it this way.  You get home and can’t wait to tell your significant other a funny story.  One of your coworkers, in their early morning funk, accidentally brought the wrong lunch bag to work.  Their child went to school with a yogurt and an orange and your coworker has a Lunchables and a Fruit Roll-Up.  This is not an earth-shaking anecdote.  This story should not take forever to tell.  How should your significant other begin their story?

“Forty years ago, food scientists at General Mills created a pectin-based fruit-flavored snack that they decided to package in a manner that they felt would appeal to childrezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…”  See?  You already fell asleep.

What about: “Guess what?  Vanessa brought her kid’s lunch to work by accident.  She had to eat a Fruit Roll-Up at her desk.”

See?  The amount of time you have to get to your point is directly related to the power of the idea and the length of the work.

What Should We Steal?

  • Contribute your own ideas to the mythologies that have always been a part of the human experience.  What new ground can you break while playing with the idea of the vampire or sea monster or ghost?
  • Match the pace at which you release exposition to the length of your work.  If you’re doing a five-minute comedy set, get to the point.  If you’re talking to the person sitting beside you on a flight from California to India…take your time.  You have eighteen hours.

GWS Reprint: Sarah Yaw’s “Stepping Down”

 This story first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Salt Hill.  You can download an attractive PDF of the piece right here.  The copyright, of course, remains with Ms. Yaw and GWS is grateful that she allowed the story to be reproduced here.  Take a look at what we can steal from the story at this link.

Ms. Yaw’s debut novel, You Are Free to Go, will be published by Engine Books in September 2014.  You can visit her site to learn more about the author and her work.

 

Stepping Down

Sarah Yaw

Those of us who know nothing about prison guards know this: they love loose women and treat their wives like criminals, they never talk about their day unless they’re drinking, they beat prisoners instead of kids and they spend their state wage on boats and cars and pools because a paycheck is for enjoying and God knows they kiss the devil’s ass every day to get one. My best friend Beth, whose father is a guard, says there’s only some truth to it.

Tonight is their game. Lights blast on popcorn-colored and the fans pour in. Not too many—Auburn is a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they all call down there way upstate—but it’s a good turnout for small-town baseball on a rainy night. Tonight I am here for a first date with David who, like everyone else, is here to honor John who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple. I met David on a boat out on the lake a month ago when I was thinking about other things.

When I met David it was a burning sun and the sky was only as open as the hills. According to Beth, I needed a distraction; I was all but dead. I felt that old. At twenty-eight a divorce is like dentures. And Alex’s leaving had left me geriatric, I’m here with David tonight because he asked, but I am sure now that it is a mistake.

“Karen, a prison guard?” Beth said as we smoked on her porch. “That’s a step down.”

For an August night it is cold from rain that fell a couple hours ago. The sky is closing in on us and the crows are making their way through the northern and western skies for their perching along the dark waters of the Owasco River. David has gone off to the concession for dollar drafts. A mentally retarded boy is behind me in brand-new jeans and a new windbreaker and a new baseball hat and he is waving a triangled banner that screams Double Days in blue and yellow as if this were the big time. There is a counselor, a small pasty-faced brown-haired girl with no-nonsense shoes. Someone is fiddling with the back of my hair. It’s flipped and flipped and flipped again and the counselor says, “No Jason, no. Jason, stop that.” I turn around, and Jason holds his twisted fist to his mouth and smiles a naughty smile and she’s apologizing, but I’m not upset I tell her. “It’s perfectly okay.” I say.

***

The tumbling of weather systems overhead doesn’t look good for the game but the rain at least is holding. David is tall and wide. His hair is short and dark now but he looks as though he must have been a flossy-headed baby. He wears small fashionable wire-rimmed glasses and is surprisingly handsome, though not my type, He sits down next to me and hands me a beer and we watch boys in blue shirts push large janitorial brooms in unison as if it were a show. They wipe away water from the tarps that cover the well-kept sod. They even play special sweeping music. The team’s blue boys sweep the entire infield expertly in one pass. When they’re done, they are in a perfect line and in time with the music they all hold the brooms away from their chests with their left arms looking like the final formation in a chorus number. Taking their positions along the tarp’s edge, they roll ably in hopes of bringing the players to the field before the clouds boiling overhead erupt and send us all home. I am entertained but David says he wants the game to start so John’s son Daren can toss the first pitch. The newspaper is here waiting to click and flash a picture and everyone is waiting to remember in silence the man who died not as he died with rickety ribs and a mouth nearly glued shut with thirst, but as the young man we can all admire now that he is dead and above reproach.

David points out John’s wife across the stands. I am jealous of her because my memories of Alex are not so unadulterated. Alex left quickly and at Christmas time.

“Is this your first time to a game?” David asks.

“As an adult,” I say.

“Well things have changed a little I imagine,” he says looking around at the stands. And they have. This is a new stadium, an imitation of an old ballpark.

“Yup, everything,” I say as music turns up turning this into a waiting-to-play party. The guards are gathering in loud standing groups and the wives are seated wrapped in fleece blankets and the children are running in splashy swarms through the stands.

“What?” he says.

“Everything has changed,” I say. He nods in agreement with a story he doesn’t know and sits silently looking out across the misty field. David, I have noticed, widens his gray, blue, green eyes when I’m speaking like he’s listening with them. He repeats what I’ve said and adds little. In my estimation he must not be very smart.

“I guess this is nothing like New York. I bet you miss it,” he says.

“I miss the food and the movies,” I say.

“Food and movies—Auburn’s not so fun after all that.” He leans back and crosses his legs. He leans his elbows on the seats behind him and his chest is broad.

“I missed the lakes when I lived away,” he says.

“Where were you?” I am shocked he’s been anywhere but here.

“Where was I? Tucson. For a girl,” he laughs. “And then she kicked me out so her boyfriend could move in and I came home to my mother’s house. Like you,” he says. “But I lived in the basement.”

I laugh because Beth said on first dates you need to act amused by what they say even if you’re not. And I am not because I am thinking of the day my father came to Brooklyn to bring me home and how my stomach turned and I tasted failure like I had lost the war, like I was retreating and leaving behind spoils. I hate that David thinks he’s anything like me. That he thinks he knows anything about my life.

I do live in my mother’s house—in an apartment above the library in her enormous house. I cook my own meals there and smoke late at night to forget that I used to have plans. But I am nothing like him, I assure myself. At one time my life had weight, it had purpose, it was big and I knew exactly how to be in it. Now, instead of dinner parties and brunching at a long table of coupled-up friends, or a job with children, I exercise and lunch with ladies who take tremendous pity on me and stroke my head. I don’t work. I eat sushi with them and listen to their endless advice: exercise, read books, listen to tapes, write in your journal, take long kind baths. It will all be okay. You’ll meet someone, they say as if it is the sad and inevitable truth. Being single doesn’t last forever, just hope it’s a good one next time, they say this as if we have no control in our desperation over who comes and who goes and who stays. Besides, you’re pretty enough they say.  Blondes don’t stay single.

But I am fair and forgettable. Just like I’ve always been fair and forgettable, like I am in the pictures that line the walls of my mother’s house. The pictures of the know-it-all girl. The predictable and cautious girl. The girl who knew just how things would turn out. When I walk through the dark house on nights when I can’t find Alex I look at her and I miss her.

Beth tells me, “It’s okay to just hide out for a while, but sooner or later you’ve got to get back out there.” That’s why I’m here tonight, not because of any great hopes, but because I am taking her advice like I take the ladies’ advice. I listen to everyone who has ever been alone and I wonder how it is they are all still standing.

***

I smell David as he leans next to me to reach to the ground to pick up his keys that have fallen from his pocket and I know that he is not for me. He smells funny like laundry and soap and there is the smell that is all his and it scares me. He is not right. He is too tall, too thin, too unfamiliar.

Alex who is a musician and who is pretty much always afraid of death and who wakes in the night gripping his chest drenched in sweat from fear is exactly what I’m used to. David who spends his days unarmed, locked in a prison with murderers doing who knows what, who sits next to me straight and still and looks me in the eye without feeling the need to speak while slowly sipping his beer is unacceptable because I crave Alex. I crave him all the time. At night in my dreams we still sleep against another and it’s as if nothing has changed, as if the next thing known will be our waking up on old age as the arm-in-arm couple walking the side-by-side, no-particular-place-to-go-walk. All my will be understood again. Clear. Expected. Guaranteed.

Looking at John’s wife across the stands with her simple brown hair and an old sweatshirt and jeans and white sneakers sitting with her feet wedged on the railing in front of her, knees to her chin and her arm around her boy as she stares into the lights, caught in their greasy smear, I envy her more and more her mourning.

***

French Fries! French Fries! French Fries! yells Jason the retarded boy as he rushes the concessions and tosses his blue Double Days banner to the ground in his dash out of the stands. David makes a big deal about picking it up and presenting it to me as a gift. It makes me uncomfortable and I smile tensely and tell him that it, the banner, reminds me of when I was a teacher. “I taught Kindergarten in a private day school and what l loved most was teaching my students about the shape of things.” I look at the banner. “’Everywhere you can find a triangle, an ellipse, a trapezoid,’ I used to tell them. ‘The world is easier to understand when you can fit it into a cube,’ I always said.”

“You can fit it into a cube? You really believe that?” he asks.

“Well,” I say, shocked. “It helped them learn the shapes. Besides, they need to know how things work. You’re in a prison all day, wouldn’t it be better if everyone played by the rules?”

“Yeah, it would,” he says. “But life doesn’t go like that, you know that by now.” We’re quiet for a moment. I am looking away when he places his hand on the middle of my back and says apologetically, “Go on with your story.” I don’t want to because I am angry that he won’t just sit there amused by me. Who the hell is he, anyway?

Beth did say, “You never know, maybe he’s different, maybe he’ll surprise you.”

“Go on,” he says.

“Well.” I am afraid to tell him how my room was alphabetized, hierarchical, gradated, and clean. “I had glistening evaluations. The students excelled. The parents were always satisfied. The end.”

“Did you quit your job when you came home?”

“Yes,” I lie. The truth is I was fired, but he doesn’t need to know that. Or how my boss told me they were moving towards a more open approach to learning and, in her opinion, I had no knack for it. Or that that was the precise moment when everything changed.

***

Tonight there is always the weather. There is rumbling deeper in the distance. But it is in the North and seems to be far from town. The boys in blue shirts are sweeping the bases and putting down the lines. The gray clouds tumble as though they are amused. The wind is ripping through the trees tossing the crows this way and that and has brought with it the smell of manure. 1t’s from the northern farms that roll flatly out from Canada and like a mantle it covers us.

If I were from somewhere else, I think, a place where it was not known what form love sometimes takes I would never wager on the attraction of opposites. Tonight, the women are shivering in the stands and the men are drinking and they are all not talking. Not with each other, anyway. The women huddle. They complain. They yell, periodically, at their buzzing children. Sometimes they swear. “Fuck this cold in August,” one yells from under a blanket. They never ever look to where their husbands are standing right behind home plate yelling to David to get the hell over here. They laugh because this is a date, make a big deal about how they are going to steal him away. And I am mortified because I am someone’s wife.

Beth said, “Expect a lot of stories about Jewish pedophiles, Nigger kid killers and just plain old white perverts. That is what my father talks about when he drinks.” And David is absorbed into a conversation in which hands are flying and I am imagining the worst sorts of stories.

I sit alone and search for something to consume from my memory of Alex. I look for a last secret sweet kept willfully locked away in my chest. I sift through the bones that are still pure, but I can’t find any.

It was not long after I lost my job that Alex pulled away from me and snapped, He primped. He did sit ups. At dinner with friends he wouldn’t sit. Instead he ate standing as if edging towards the door. We don’t even have sex, he said on Halloween. I am unhappy, he said one month later. Everyday I spend with you makes me feel one day closer to death, he said for Christmas gripping his chest in a midnight sweat. Then he left.

John’s wife is also alone and I wonder why it is the ladies haven’t flocked to her.

I envy her still. Every morning Alex wakes up. Every morning in a small attic apartment in Brooklyn, three blocks from ours, he wakes up with his arm asleep under the head of some other woman. I look up and see David. His flirting eye is on me as the men keep him locked up and I can see he wants out, he’s had enough of their talk; he wants to come back and from here I can see Alex never will.

Jason grabs the back of my shirt and it cuts me in the neck. I laugh but David who has just come back does not. David handles it. He turns to Jason and says, “Hey, buddy, give me five.” It works. Jason laughs and slaps David’s hand over and over and over. It turns out David knows the counselor. They chit and they chat about the intrepid game. David takes my hand and l let him. With it he points Jason’s attention to the sky. Jason makes eerie, Halloween house OOOOOOOOS when he sees the blackness of it. The counselor leans into David and whispers not too quietly that these clouds are proof that there is a God, “That guy was a cheatin’ bastard,” she says about John. “Everybody knows it too,” she says loudly. And I understand why John’s wife is alone and why none of the other wives want to be near her.

The boys in blue shirts roll out the tarp again. “Canceled!” Everyone yells. A loud and angry, “Ahhhh!” explodes from the men, “I told you so,” “I knew it,” they claim.  “On John’s day.  What a shame.  What a Goddamned shame.”  The women Thank Freaking God that they get to go home.

I see David looking over at John’s wife. He is silent but not still. He has taken my hand and wrapped it in his and placed it in his lap and he is huddling over it and tapping each of his legs and says in a terse voice that he’s glad it’s canceled, for her sake. I agree and we watch as she grabs her things and hurries her disappointed boy out of the stadium.

 

Sarah Yaw’s novel The Other Side of the Wall was recently selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize. Sarah received an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is an Assistant Professor at Cayuga Community College, where she does all kinds of cool things. She lives in Auburn, NY with her four-year-old twins, her husband, the photographer Douglas Lloyd, a fish named John, and a couple of neglected houseplants that are doing a lousy job filling the void left by two old, beloved dogs.

What Can We Steal From Sarah Yaw’s “Stepping Down”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Stepping Down,” short story
Author: Sarah Yaw
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2003 issue of Salt Hill, a very cool journal.  Ms. Yaw has been kind enough to let me republish the story.  You will find the story in plain text format here.  You can also download a PDF of the story here.  Her novel The Other Side of the Wall was recently selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize.  The book will be released in September 2014 and is definitely worth your time.  You can learn more about the book and its author at sarahyaw.com.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Place

Discussion:
Karen’s life is not going the way she thought it would.  She moved away from her beloved New York City and now lives with her mother.  She’s a divorcee and is on a date with a prison guard, one of many who populate Auburn, New York, “a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they call down there way upstate.”  David is a good enough guy, but it seems that Karen is not ready for a relationship.  She’s fresh out of a divorce and a bit adrift in her life, an existence that Karen believes once had weight and purpose, but is now being wasted.  A storm is rolling into Auburn, spoiling the ballgame and the fundraiser that is being held for John, a prison guard “who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple.”  When we last see Karen, she is filled with envy and sublimated sadness.  Still, there’s the sense that Karen will manage to get some air in her sails and move on.

The reader (at least this one) is struck most by Ms. Yaw’s use of place.  The title itself is a reference to place.  Karen is “stepping down” from Brooklyn to Central New York.  Auburn is a very important part of the story; in a way, the piece could not have taken anywhere else.  To whom do we look when we consider the purpose and meaning of place in fiction?  Why, Eudora Welty, of course:

It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations more poetic even than actual. I say, “The Yorkshire Moors,” and you will say, “Wuthering Heights,” and I have only to murmur, “If Father were only alive-” for you to come back with “We could go to Moscow,” which certainly is not even so. The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s field.

Auburn is the crossroads of the circumstances depicted in “Stepping Down.”  That town is the only place on Earth where all of the elements can be found: lonely Karen figuring out her life, David the prison guard easing into his own existence, John’s widow, the storm that cancels the fundraiser.  In a marvelous way, everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe has converged so that the story can happen the way it does.

Look at what else Ms. Welty says:

Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius.

Think about your hometown.  There’s the supermarket where you had your first job and suffered the first indignities of your professional life.  There’s the wooded area where you kissed your first crush.  The childhood home that served as a crucible for your hopes and fears.  Ms. Yaw and Ms. Welty understand that a story is not an isolated incident that takes place in a vacuum.  Their characters (and yours) have a history, just as the streets where you grew up have been traveled by countless people: some good, some bad.  Lovers and fighters.  Young and old and everything in between.  Understanding the meaning of place in your work can add a sense of continuity that lends it weight.

Look at Ms. Yaw’s second paragraph:

Tonight is their game. Lights blast on popcorn-colored and the fans pour in. Not too many—Auburn is a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they all call down there way upstate—but it’s a good turnout for small-town baseball on a rainy night. Tonight I am here for a first date with David who, like everyone else, is here to honor John who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple. I met David on a boat out on the lake a month ago when I was thinking about other things.

Ms. Yaw does a lot in this paragraph.  There’s a lot of exposition and graceful description of what the town is like.  The reader learns about the protagonist and her date.  (The antagonist of the piece?)  Most importantly, Ms. Yaw gives Karen an important reason to be at the game, outside of the pedestrian fact that she’s on a date.  The game is a benefit for the dearly departed John.  This element of the story, laid so early, also lends an internal logic to the end of the story.  The benefit is rained out and David looks at the widow John perhaps wondering if he and Karen will end up married.

By making this move, Ms. Yaw ensures that the reader doesn’t see HER hands as those who shape the plot of the story.  Yes, Ms. Yaw was sitting at her typewriter or in front of a notebook and was the one who literally ended the date and brought in the rain.  In the story, however, everything happens as a result of the actions of the characters.  (Um…except for the rain.  But you get the point.)

Let’s also take note with regard to Ms. Yaw’s contribution to the eternal struggle: HOW SHOULD WE USE WHITE SPACE?  The story takes place in real time, but is broken up four times by white space.  I don’t believe that the breaks are motivated by the need to advance in time; it seems as though Ms. Yaw uses the breaks as an opportunity for emotional closure or catharsis.  How appropriate!  Karen is a character who is defined (in this piece) by her need to understand herself; the pauses Ms. Yaw literally puts on the page offer readers the same opportunity.

What Should We Steal?

    • Set your stories in real, authentic places.  Your characters should inhabit real cities and towns that exist in a larger world.  People can’t live in a vacuum…neither can characters.
    • Imbue your work with an internal logic.  A story should not seem as though its events are being put in action by the invisible hand of the author.  Instead, it should seem as though they are acting of their own accord.

 

  • WHITE SPACE USE #24601: Break up the narrative with white space in order to offer the reader and/or your characters time to appreciate the emotions that are developing in the story.

GWS Mini: Rhyming “Orange” with Eminem

I am not sure how many of my kind readers are fans of rap.  I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of rap, either, but you really can’t dispute that great rappers (Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Snoop…Lion?, Eminem) do an awful lot of interesting things with words and meter.  It’s also important to note that there’s no inherently bad medium.  There are good comic books, good movies, good novels, good rap, good country music…it’s sad when someone dismisses a whole genre.  (Except for dubstep.  There’s no good dubstep.)  I plan on writing a proper essay on what we can steal from an Eminem song, but here’s an amuse bouche.

Years ago, Eminem did an interview for a 60 Minutes profile.  During the course of the conversation, this happens:

I love that Eminem gets visibly annoyed by people who say that there are no words that rhyme with orange.  He’s passionate about language and wants other people to understand the beautiful opportunities for expression that are afforded us by our common tongue. 

I’m not sure if Eminem has taken any classes in the field of linguistics, but he’s having a lot of fun with language and thinking of words and phonemes in a number of fun ways:

“I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with George.”

Eminem, like Emily Dickinson and Sappho and Denise Duhamel, employs off-rhyme and enjambment and internal rhyme to keep his work interesting.  Who better than a rapper to use as an example of how to manipulate words?  That’s all they do, right?  You may or may not be a fan of the books, but James Patterson and his co-writers are experts in creating suspense.  If you’re writing a story about white people almost kissing, you’ll do well to study the works of Nicholas Sparks, right?

whitepeoplealmostkissing

But seriously, it’s within our best interest to have an appreciation for all genres so we can steal their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. 

So even if you don’t like Eminem’s music or the violence depicted within, try to open your mind a little bit to appreciate the elements of craft at which he excels.

What Can We Steal From Elias Marsten’s “Gossamer Crypt”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gossamer Crypt,” short story
Author: Elias Marsten
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Issue 12 of Fiddleblack, a very cool publisher of fiction and creative nonfiction.  You can read the story here.

Bonus: Mr. Marsten has published a number of stories in Fiddleblack; they can be accessed here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Teaching Your Reader

Discussion:
“Gossamer Crypt” is a series of vignettes about Eddie, a man who seems to fit into the stereotype of the “country” guy, but is somewhat more complicated that he may appear on the surface.  Eddie goes to drive-in movies and to secluded cabins with women, though the seem to be an afterthought.  Mr. Marsten concludes his examination of Eddie by describing the character’s reaction to the message he received from an old high school friend.  Even old friends, Eddie understands, may have trouble accepting us for who we are.

If you read Mr. Marsten’s story, one element of craft becomes apparent.  Mr. Marsten enjoys employing very long sentences and makes the shrewd choice to begin the piece with a 126-word whopper:

The long line into the drive-in wrapped around the corner of a Wal-Mart parking lot and extended some ways toward the horizon line there on the state route until after some ten or fifteen minutes the snakewound cars began to creep through the two stoplights and past the bend, past the derelict farm homes and rotting red barns and sixes of cats stood Bastet-like on the tops of short old dog houses, crossbar fences, and even on an old mound of dead tires that had built up from sometime decades ago when the trees were thinner at their trunks and much younger in their branches and now criss-crossed over the roofs and wires run across the street where their car turned slow into the drive-in lot.

By beginning with a long sentence, Mr. Marsten is teaching you how to read his story.  You know right off the bat that you are in store for a wild ride through language.  The long sentences that populate the story also contribute a great deal to the tone.  “Gossamer Crypt” is not a plot-heavy story; Mr. Marsten seemed much more interested in characterization.  A lyrical open, therefore, makes total sense.  Compare the opening of this short story to the first few sentences of a piece that IS plot-heavy.  Here’s the beginning of John Grisham’s The Firm:

The senior partner studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper.  He had the brains, the ambition, the good looks.  And he was hungry; with his background, he had to be.  He was married, and that was mandatory.  The firm had never hired an unmarried lawyer, and it frowned heavily on divorce, as well as womanizing and drinking.

In this passage, we learn a lot about Mitch McDeere from the perspective of the evil partners who will later serve as the antagonists in the book.  We know that Mitch is being hired at a big firm and that he was poor and is married.  The reader learns that Mitch is entering a situation that is at least Puritanical and at most homicidal.  This is a passage that teaches the reader that he or she is in for a fun thriller: a complicated struggle between hero and villains.

Mr. Marsten made different choices than Mr. Grisham did, and that’s okay.  The choices each writer made served the work.

Under ordinary circumstances, writers are wise to make each character a full citizen of the work they inhabit.  One thing that struck me about “Gossamer Crypt” was how vaguely drawn Eddie’s women seem to be.  In a narrative-driven piece, this might be a problem.  After all, we want to understand those who influence the protagonist’s actions.  What does it mean that the women don’t seem to mean very much?  Well, they must not be very important to Eddie.

The same principle applies to characters in programs such as Law & Order.  To some extent, the characters must SERVE A PURPOSE.  “Record Store Clerk” must tell the detectives that they recognize the man or woman in the mug shot and where to find him or her.  I’m guessing that the actor who portrays Record Store Clerk does his or her best to make the clerk unique, but such a character will always be limited by the indelible stamp of its lowly origin.

What Should We Steal?

  • Teach your reader to understand your work.  A piece that is less about narrative and more about character should begin in a manner that reflects this fact.
  • Ensure that your characters are full citizens of the story…unless they’re not supposed to be.  Characters must be at least as important as the function they play in the work.