Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Check out Keith Rebec’s story, “Looking out for the Dead.” The piece appeared in Split Lip Magazine and can be found right here.
Sure, you might want to know Mr. Rebec’s thoughts about how his story fits in the context of animal-centric literature. I wanna know why he did some of the little things in the story. Mr. Rebec was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his work:
1) Robert Earl Keen has certainly put together an accomplished career as a singer and songwriter, but he’s not as well-known as some other country artists. Why’d you choose to have Eugene listen to him in the truck instead of someone else?
KR: Excellent question. When I began writing this story, it became clear early that Eugene didn’t really follow the mainstream. He’s more of a Bob Seger or Robert Earl Keen type of guy. So, when I first pictured him jamming in his truck, Robert Earl Keen happened to be playing. Now, looking back, I can see a little of me there since I’m a fan of Robert Earl Keen. However, it was never my intention to put Robert Earl into the story. It just happened that way.
2) There are a couple of sentences on the first page that are constructed in a similar fashion, but one has a comma and the other doesn’t:
“When he reached the apex of the ridge the lights of a police car flashed behind a blue Volvo sedan.”
“When he reached the truck, he took a leg in each hand and swung it over the truck rail.”
How come you put a comma in the second sentence, but not in the first?
KR: In revisions of a work, I evaluate every sentence multiple times, and I always consider sound and flow among other things. This is just an example of where the dependent clause, at least to me, flows better without a comma. Now, some grammar folks would probably say it must have a comma since the dependent clause has five or more words, or there must be a comma to mark where the independent clause begins. But I’ve never been one to really follow rules, if you want the truth.
3) Deidra drives a silver Toyota Camry. Why’d you choose that car and color?
KR: Another good question. I don’t know. I do believe, though, as we write and get deep into a story, things just come naturally that highlight more of a character’s personality. For example, if Eugene had a Rebel flag painted on the side of his truck, it would’ve changed how I perceived him while writing, and the same could be said for how the reader will view him.
4) At the end, the protagonist’s romantic rival steps out of the house. You say, “He held a plastic spatula in his left hand and some egg clung to it.” You could have cast the sentence in a number of ways:
“He held a plastic spatula in his left hand; some egg clung to it.”
“He held a plastic spatula in his left hand—egg clung to it.”
“He held a plastic spatula in his left hand. Fried egg clung to it.”
Why’d you use “and?”
KR: You’re right. Any of the above examples would work fine. Again, like one of the questions asked earlier, it was more of a sound thing. I also didn’t want to slow the scene down, and “and” is a good word to use when one wants to keep things rolling.
Keith Rebec resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student working on an MA in Writing at Northern Michigan University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, Devil’s Lake, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. He’s also the managing and nonfiction editor for the literary journal Pithead Chapel, and you can learn more about him at www.keithrebec.com.
Keith Rebec, Split Lip Magazine, Why'd You Do That?
Title of Work and its Form: “White Rice,” short story
Author: James Yu (on Twitter @jaycmu)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story was featured in Ninth Letter‘s second web edition. You can find the story here.
Bonus: As a proud member of the Ohio State MFA family, I am partial to my program. I’m not a crazy person, however, so I am happy to admit that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is another world-class place to hone one’s writing skills. A few years ago, Tom Grimes put together a very cool book called The Workshop : Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: Forty-Three Stories, Recollections, and Essays on Iowa’s Place in Twentieth-Century American Literature. I love the book because it contains great stories from the great writers who have been a part of Iowa’s program over the decades in addition to the kinds of personal anecdotes that make the MFA sound so appealing.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: No Mo’ Status Quo
Molly and Kevin were “no longer newlyweds after Molly stopped eating rice.” Kevin is the first-person protagonist; he seems to believe that his wife’s rejection is something of a rejection of him and his Korean heritage. The bulk of the story occurs on THE DAY MOLLY’S PARENTS COME FOR DINNER. Kevin shows off his culinary skills; his father-in-law (a Vietnam veteran) is nice enough, but is still the slightest bit politically incorrect. The dinner illuminates problems in Kevin and Molly’s marriage (that’s what stories do, after all) and Mr. Yu ends the story with a question. The petty annoyances with which they afflict each other were small. “But did knowing make things better, or worse?”
Maybe it’s because I love playwriting so much, but I LOVE it when a writer simply shuffles characters around in a scene. If you force, for example, the judgmental and nasty matriarch of a family off stage, the other characters get to talk about her! You can release exposition, advance characterization…anything you want! Mr. Yu sets “White Rice” on THE DAY MOLLY’S PARENTS COME FOR DINNER. The dynamic between the married couple is inherently altered. I’m guessing that Kevin and Molly have gotten into a bit of a rut and the days have run together, rife with passive aggression and silly arguments. That routine is broken up by the parents’ arrival. Even though the parents aren’t so bad and everyone in the story is a mature adult (for whatever that means), things are different because the home contains four people instead of two. As Kevin points out, the presence of her parents “demanded a measure of civility” from his wife. Once dinner is over, the couple is forced to have a quiet fight; after all, who wants to get into a knockdown-dragout with Mom and Dad in the next room?
What’s the lesson? Force your characters to enter and exit in such a manner that you maximize conflict or alleviate it in the interest of reflection. Think of a time you’ve been in a public place and have heard a couple fighting. Once the combatants leave, the onlookers are allowed to purge their shock and to comment upon what they saw. As a demonstration, I offer the best story in the history of the galaxy. All of human evolution was mere preparation for this episode of Cheaters. Everything after the episode is a slow descent into entropic heat death.
So the woman and her “friends” were…having a good time. Then the boyfriend entered stage right. Don’t get me wrong, the initial confrontation is amazing. Equally dramatic is the quiet discussion that occurred after the construction worker and the…Christian cat left the scene. And all the while, the Cheaters team and their cameras influence the scene with their mere presence.
Look at how Mr. Yu finishes the climactic bedroom scene of his story. Molly has been crying. Kevin is being fairly sympathetic. But the disrupted status quo has forced them into being a little more emotionally raw than usual. Mr. Yu seems to pull back from adding “stuff” to the dialogue at the end of the scene. (The great Lee K. Abbott calls the extra bits after dialogue “stuff.”)
What is the effect of this unadorned dialogue? I love the way Mr. Yu knows he doesn’t need to shape our understanding of the emotionally burdensome lines. He’s set up the story in such a way that we know the married couple has problems and we know what many of those problems are. All we want to know is what the two characters say to each other.
What Should We Steal?
- Move your characters on and off stage…(even if they only live on a page). What’s better? Watching the cuckold confront the cheater? Or gossiping about it afterward?
- Ditch the dialogue tags and other extras during crucial emotional moments. Once we are brought up to speed with the characters and how they’re feeling, we don’t need to know as much about where the characters are walking or what they’re doing with their hands. Do you narrate the arguments YOU have with your significant other? (Something tells me that doing so would annoy your partner…but you still shouldn’t do it.)
2014, Cheaters, James Yu, Ninth Letter, No Mo' Status Quo, Village People Infidelity
Title of Work and its Form: “The Day After Sinatra Married Mia Farrow,” poem
Author: Joseph Millar
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in Volume 80, No. 1 of New Letters, one of the top literary journals out there. The fine folks at Poetry Daily have been kind enough to republish the poem online.
Bonuses: Here is Mr. Millar’s Poetry Foundation page. Here is Mr. Millar’s poem, “American Wedding;” it’s accompanied by an interview about the poem as well as a very interesting discussion. Poetry is best enjoyed when read aloud, isn’t it? Well, here is a video of Mr. Millar reading that poem.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material
The poem depicts what happened (or may have happened) on July 20, 1966. The setting is the “Circle Diner on Kutztown Road.” (A place that may or may not have existed.) The first-person narrator is heading out to work at a construction site; Edna the waitress prepares his Thermos with boiling water to help keep the coffee warm all day. There are mailmen in the side booth, the cook is smoking a cigar that combines with the smoke from the grill to cloud the front window. An old man serves up a joke about Frank and Mia as the narrator eats pancakes and eggs. Do the people in the diner have the kind of fabulous, jet-setting life that Frank has? Nope. But they’re happy to go to work and happy to be alive where they are.
This poem is cool for a number of reasons. It’s extremely accessible and I wonder if a poem like this would help some of my poetry-averse students understand that verse doesn’t have to be opaque and abstract. How does Mr. Millar turn the trick of conjuring up a poem that is both “literary” and “fun?” Well, the gentleman looks at the lives of “normal” people in comparison to the celebrities everyone talked about in 1966. If you don’t know who Frank Sinatra is, hie thee to YouTube.
Celebrity culture was certainly in full swing in 1966, though the Internet, I believe, has made these distractions more pervasive. Sinatra’s marriage to Mia Farrow was a pretty big deal at the time. After all, she was thirty years younger than the crooner! We gossip about the same things today, don’t we?
Mr. Millar’s poem turns the camera around. What was life like for ordinary people on the day that news of the wedding consumed the many Americans who care about such things? Well, Sinatra and Farrow may have been enjoying their honeymoon in a beautiful place we’ll never see. Life went on for everyone else. The narrator went to work. The cook slathered butter on the grill. The waitress counted her tips. I suppose you’re more likely to get a piece into Vanity Fair if you write about the newlyweds, but isn’t there a great deal of value in examining the lives of “ordinary” people?
Everyone remembers November 22, 1963 as THE DAY JOHN F. KENNEDY DIED. What else happened that day? Many people far from Dealey Plaza were born and fell in love and died on that day. What was it like for those folks?
Kristallnacht took place on the 9th and 10th of November, 1938. There are (quite appropriately) zillions of books and short stories and poems about those terrible events. It’s hard to avoid feeling doubts about the potential of humanity because of our capability for such violence and discrimination. What would happen if you train your critical mind on people who weren’t directly involved?
World War I erupted on July 28, 1914. Although the world would be forever changed by those events, isn’t it worth lending some insight to what happened to people half a world away? Here’s what happened in Ogden City, Utah that day. (You really MUST love the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities…)
I love the way Mr. Millar lends a sense of suspense to the poem. There’s a joke in the middle of the poem. Edna, seemingly interested in making small talk, wonders how Frank is feeling that morning. We’re certainly happy to follow Mr. Millar wherever he leads us in the poem, but still…we really want to know the punchline that goes with the setup. (How does Frank feel? “Tired as hell!”)
Think about when you’re watching Jeopardy!. I’ll bet that you have trouble switching channels between the time an answer is presented and a contestant offers the correct question. Why? You want to solve the little mystery with which you’ve been presented. Here, want proof? Tell me this doesn’t drive you crazy:
How many musical acts have sold 250 million or more records?
I’m not telling you the answer. This is suspense.
What Should We Steal?
- Capture the lives and feelings of people who may otherwise go without recognition. The cast of characters in the neighborhood diner may seem anonymous when we’re passing through, but they have hopes and dreams and problems and successes. Just like Justin Bieber.
- Add suspense to short works by asking a question that invites an answer. You don’t need to tell a joke; we’re naturally wired to want both halves of a dilemma.
Fun poetry conundrum: The poem claims that Frank was “20 years her senior.” I didn’t intend to contradict Mr. Millar, but multiple sources seem to tell me that Frank was indeed “30” years her senior. What is a reader to do? I suppose there are two options:
- Mr. Millar made an artistic choice to offer the incorrect figure. I don’t believe a character in the poem makes the goof. What could it mean that he swapped twenty for thirty? Well, is there that big a difference between the two figures? I dunno…probably not. Mia Farrow was a grownup who could make her own decisions, so what does it really matter?
- Mr. Millar simply goofed. Hey, we’re all human. Perhaps he shall correct the poem in his next collection. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he likes the effect caused by the mistake.
What do you think? What’s the proper stance when it comes to changing your interpretation of a work when it has a slight factual goof? Leave a comment.
2013, Doo Bee Doo Bee Doo, Frank Sinatra, Joseph Millar, Material, New Letters
Title of Work and its Form: “Glow in the Dark,” creative nonfiction
Author: Jen Hirt
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the Winter 2013 issue of Redivider, a very cool journal. The kind people at Redivider have made the essay available as a sample to tempt you to order a copy of the issue. You can view the essay here.
Bonuses: Here is a fun prose poem Ms. Hirt published in the Baltimore Review. Ms. Hirt, I’m quite sure, would be grateful if you swing by her Amazon page. Want to see Ms. Hirt speaking at the Ohioana Book Festival? (The event is always a good time, by the way.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Right Brain/Left Brain
Wow, what a beautiful piece. Ms. Hirt describes a visit she took to a forest near the Bernheim Arboretum, an institution in Kentucky dedicated to connecting people with nature. Ms. Hirt was serving as the writer-in-residence at Bernheim, using her facility with language to spread an important gospel. Ms. Hirt’s tour guide was Mark Gumbert, a chiropterist (bat researcher) who does important work trying to understand the lives of those in-between animals. Bats are somewhere “between.” They’re not quite birds and not quite mice. There’s “a human hand in the wing of the bat,” but the creatures are certainly not primates. Ms Hirt spends the evening capturing bats and watching the signals they use to echolocate obstacles and other bats. At the end of the evening, Mark attaches a small glow stick to a small bat and everyone watches the flight path of the confused “little Leviathan” as it zigzagged across the night sky.
So why did I love this essay? Well, there’s some really pretty writing. Read for yourself to find out; we’ll probably have highlighted many of the same phrases. My favorite part, I think, was the way that Ms. Hirt structured the piece. After explaining what she was up to, she engaged in a linear discussion of the evening in question. Most importantly, she did something that I LOVE when I see in The New Yorker and Harper’s and all of those other great general interest magazines. Ms. Hirt brought in references to a number of literary sources. Bats are not simply animals that frighten many of us on a primal level. They have long been the subject of great writers. Ms. Hirt describes bats in a scientific fashion, but recount’s Aesop’s fable about the bat and the weasel. She reminds us that T.S. Eliot illuminated another side of the animal in “The Waste Land.” Why does this matter? Ms. Hirt uses her right brain and her left brain to help us understand the mysterious world of the bat and what it means to her. (And what it should mean to us.)
Isn’t this the whole point of poetry and prose and any kind of creative writing? A sunset is beautiful (particularly in Oswego, New York). But why is it beautiful? Well, that’s what words do. They try to offer some shape and meaning to experiences and objects that are often hard to describe. Countless writers have tried to define “love.” Such a concept is abstract and can’t be fully explicated with statistics and MRIs alone. Nor can one simply blubber out the words that come to mind when they think of a loved one. Heart and mind must work together. In this case, Ms. Hirt dedicates hers to illuminating the life of a bat. (At one point, Ms. Hirt acknowledges that she and those around her have abandoned reason, consumed with “stupefied wonder.”)
Ms. Hirt concludes the essay with what seems like a good general idea for any essay. How many of us have trouble figuring out where a piece ends? I can’t be the only one. At the conclusion of “Glow in the Dark,” Ms. Hirt makes a guess as to what the experience will mean to her and her future children. (And the last sentence is, of course, striking and beautiful.)
So next time you’re stuck as to how to end a piece? Try to imagine what the events of the story will mean to you in the years to come. (I’m finishing up an essay and may just try this technique myself.)
What Should We Steal?
- Approach your subject from both sides of your brain. Concrete assessment and abstract analysis work together to offer your reader a comprehensive understanding of the subject of your work.
- Conclude a piece by conjecturing what the events will mean to the protagonist(s) in the future. Will you be correct? Who knows? Your guess can still help the reader contextualize the meaning you’ve tried to communicate.
Bats, Jen Hirt, Redivider, Right Brain/Left Brain
It was fifty years ago that those four lads from Liverpool took the United States by storm with a blend of rock-and-roll and Tin Pan Alley that made young women swoon and made James Bond beg for earplugs. (Seriously; Sean Connery’s Bond dissed The Beatles in Goldfinger.) For the next several years, the Fab Four churned out album after album, playing a large role in redefining pop music. Alas, it was over in 1970; the band broke up and fans were enjoined to “Let it Be.”
Whenever I think about pop culture issues, I try not to be a stick in the mud. I am aware that my disdain for the “music” of Nicki Minaj is the same pain felt by parents who heard their children blasting “Love Me Do” from their bedrooms. Many contemporary critics were annoyed by Frank Sinatra in the same manner that One Direction’s “music” irks me. Each new generation will have their own clothing and music and language. I get it. Creative people, of course, do their best to understand the craft and ideas behind all kinds of human expression, regardless of era. Our focus, of course, should remain closest on timeless works that define and defy the times in which they were created.
Writers must understand the passion behind Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and they should learn what they can from The Beatles. Here are just ten lessons in writing craft that John, Paul, George and Ringo have to teach us:
1. Repetition is powerful and allows you to get a big affect out of small changes. – “I Saw Her Standing There” (Lennon/McCartney)
Can you believe that this is the first song that Lennon and McCartney wrote together? Amazing. Now, the song flat-out makes you want to move, so you may have missed a cool trick that Paul and John played with the lyrics. Like many of the Beatles’ early love songs, the rhymes and the concept aren’t very complicated. The narrator sees a beautiful woman across the dance floor. Got it. The rhymes? “Boom/room.” “Night/tight.” “Me/see.” (Well, I will admit that “seventeen” and “what I mean” make a pretty cool cretic rhyme.) The chord structure is pretty darn simple: a basic rock I-V with a few IVs thrown in. None of this is a knock; simple can definitely be awesome. Besides, don’t we all want a love life that is as easy as “I Saw Her Standing There?”
Importantly, the simplicity of the song allows the few complicated elements to take center stage and to have a much bigger effect. Don’t you love the playful, insistent bass line all the more because George’s rhythm guitar part is so simple?
Writers will want to take a look at a lyrical move that John and Paul make at the end of each verse. I believe that I noticed this cool bit myself a long time ago, but I’m a big fan of Alan W. Pollack’s Beatles scholarship, so I’m happy to give the gentleman a shoutout either way. Go see his site. It’s awesome.
VERSE 1: How could I dance with another when I saw her standing there?
VERSE 2: She wouldn’t dance with another when I saw her standing there.
VERSE 3: Now I’ll never dance with another since I saw her standing there.
Paul keeps the music chugging along with that exciting bass line and uses the words to add momentum, too. The changes I’m pointing out create a narrative. In the first verse, the woman is a stranger to the narrator. Eventually, he asks her to dance and she begins to develop reciprocal feelings. In the third verse? The coupling is formalized; the narrator proclaims his joy that he’s found a mate. The listener is grabbed because, inspired by these small changes in the context of repetition, he or she subconsciously wants to see what happens to a character who expresses longing.
2. Experiment by writing in the voice of an author you admire. – “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (Lennon/McCartney)
Isn’t that music video beyond charming? If you listen to John’s pinched tone and the circuitous nature of the verses, you’ll definitely hear the influence of Bob Dylan. (Who seems to have introduced the boys to some other things, too.) Compare “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” to an early Dylan hit that was likely swirling around in John’s head in 1965:
What was one of John’s intentions when composing the song? Here’s what Paul said in a 1980s Playboy interview:
That was John doing a Dylan–heavily influenced by Bob. If you listen, he’s singing it like Bob.
We each have our own unique voices as writers, but what happens if you play around and pretend to be someone else for a little while? (In John’s case, you get a hit song.) Look back at the body of your work to see what kinds of themes and archetypes and even words you usually use. What would happen if you try ditching some of those crutches? I’ve done this in my own work. For reasons that are obvious to anyone who knows me, I tend to write about unrequited love and characters who feel abandoned. For the past couple years, I’ve tried to play around with other themes and other tones in the same way that John wanted to see what it would be like if he ditched some of the bright tone of his previous songs and tried a chug-chug-chug folk song in 3/4.
If you write romance stories, why not consider writing a hard-boiled crime story to see what your voice sounds like when you’re describing murder instead of love? (Here are some cool audio renditions of stories from Ellery Queen.) Say you love Alice Munro, but most of your work is more like the horror output of Stephen King. What would happen if you try to write your own “Munro” story?
3. Find a writing partner or first reader who complements you well. – “Getting Better” (Lennon/McCartney)
One of my many writing-related regrets is that I never found a writing partner. Can I do a lot on my own? Sure. But I love what a partnership can do and how the whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts. Lennon and McCartney pushed each other with the friendly competition they shared. I’m a longtime fan of The State; Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have done some amazing things in collaboration.
An honest and occasionally brutal writing partner or first reader can tell you where you’ve gone wrong and can even contribute to the final product in meaningful ways. “Getting Better” is a great example as to how the Lennon/McCartney partnership resulted in a better song than would have emerged had Paul been on his own. It’s too simplistic to say that Paul was the “happy/melodic” one and that John was the “melancholy” one focused on creating an atmosphere and evoking emotion. In this song, however, you have a great example of how the two men came together. Here’s what Paul said about the song in that Playboy interview:
PAUL: Wrote that at my house in St. Johns Wood. All I remember is that I said, “It’s getting better all the time,” and John contributed the legendary line “It couldn’t get much worse.” Which I thought was very good. Against the spirit of that song, which was all superoptimistic–then there’s that lovely little sardonic line. Typical John.
In this case, John was keeping Paul’s optimism in check. Adding “can’t get much worse” adds a layer of complexity that ensures the song possesses more philosophical weight than it might otherwise have.
How do you find a close collaborator? I have no idea. Like I said, I’ve never really had a partner in that way. I guess it all comes down to hanging out with other people who create works you love and developing a mutual relationship with them. Maybe a little luck, too.
4. Create a modern version of a classic form. – “For No One” (Lennon/McCartney)
I hope you had a hanky while you were listening to the song. (Surprisingly, the piece is not performed in D minor, which is, as we all know, the saddest of all chords.) As Mr. Pollack agrees, “For No One” features a number of attributes of the nineteeth-century lieder that have long been a part of the repertoire of the classical singer. Here’s an example I know about because of my late and much-beloved German teacher:
“Der Erlkönig” is an art song and art songs are cool because they are often a musical representation of a piece of literature that is composed for the vocal repertory; the point is to show off the voice of the singer.
Here’s another art song from Schubert. I afflicted a few folks with a terrible rendition of this in high school. (My much-beloved music teacher did her best; you can’t turn lead to gold.)
I don’t know if this is technically an “art song,” but Igor Keller earned my eternal respect by creating an oratorio out of the court documents that were released in Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment case. (You’ll never look at felafels in the same way…)
The point is that art songs don’t HAVE to be something that we don’t write anymore. Look what (primarily) McCartney did with “For No One.” Can’t you see the song being performed by a classical singer in a beautiful recital hall? Wow…look what Moran Meisels did with the song…
Did you dry your tears again? Okay, good. What are some other “forgotten” forms that are still perfectly good? The epic poem? The silent film? The five-act Elizabethan-style play? It may be the twenty-first century, but there’s no reason you can’t write a good, old-fashioned “ode.”
5. Nail down the fundamentals…then deconstruct the form you just mastered. – “I’ll Follow the Sun” (Lennon/McCartney)
If you look at the Beatles canon, you can tell how quickly Lennon and McCartney reached a level of expertise in songwriting. “I’ll Follow the Sun” was an early song that Paul wrote primarily on his own. The gentleman was weaned on Broadway songs and folk songs: pieces that have (or at least had) a well-defined structure. Compare “I’ll Follow the Sun” to one of George Gershwin’s best. (Here’s the song…sung by one of the best.)
The song has what is called a “32-bar structure.” I’ll let Wikipedia tell you some of the music nerd stuff that I don’t know. The point is that while McCartney goofs around with that traditional structure, the song is clearly in the tradition of those great musical theater songs. (A tight rhyme scheme, 8-measure verses…) Once Paul and John had mastered the very basics of creating songs, they were able to create great works that DIDN’T conform to the long-established conventions of popular song:
So short stories, poems, essays and novels resemble songs in the sense that there are structures and conventions that most great works have in common. Once you research these “rules” and have written good stuff in compliance with the “formula,” you can experiment with much more confidence. (Just don’t take any psychedelic drugs. No one wants to imagine that an area rug is going to eat them.)
To be continued in Part Two…
Ella Fitzgerald, Ellery Queen, German, The Beatles, The GWS 10
Hey, want to go see Stephen King talk about writing in a fairly intimate setting? Oh…there’s no such event happening tonight. And even if there were, we would be kept out by the vagaries of distance and travel cost and of our other responsibilities.
Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, however, we can “attend” a master class that Mr. King gave at UMass Lowell on Friday, December 7th, 2012. The talk was moderated by another great writer, Andre Dubus III. (He teaches at the school.)
So let’s pull up a seat. Make sure you turn off your cell phone so you won’t disturb others. And go to the bathroom now so you don’t make everyone else in your row stand up to let you by.
What are some things we can steal from the panel discussion?
4:05: After a spirited introduction from Mr. Dubus, Mr. King relates how starstruck he was a young writer attending a masterclass given by Joseph Heller. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m breathing the same air as the guy who thought up Yossarian and Major Major and all of those things. I was in love with reading. I was in love with my girlfriend, but sometimes, you know, if I’d been given a choice, if they had said, ‘you can have your girlfriend or your books,’ I’d have to sit down and say, ‘let me think about that.'” Mr. King was flabbergasted and intimidated by Heller until the author spoke for a while and Mr. King realized that Heller was “just a guy.” Just like Mr. Dubus and just like himself. Mr. King reminds us that writers all begin in the same place and share a great deal, including humanity. We’re part of a vast fraternity and we share the same neuroses and responsibility to contribute to the success of the next generation. Do the “big boys” and “big girls” have the obligation to invite into their homes every aspiring writer they meet? Of course not. But we improve as writers if we relate to other writers. (Which is part of my motivation for doing this site in the first place!)
At around 7:00, Mr. King tells a fun story about how he came up with the idea for his next novel. He was in a hotel room somewhere in the Carolinas and saw a news story about a dispute in Cleveland. An aggrieved woman heard that her rival was applying for a job at a large cattle call at a McDonald’s and decided to get her revenge. The woman drove to McDonald’s and began a physical altercation. When the victim got away, the perpetrator got back into her car and plowed through a number of job seekers. Mr. King seems to be talking about this story: “Police: Four hit by car in McDonald’s parking lot, cell phone video shows incident.” (There’s a snippet from the local TV news broadcast, too.)
And this seems to be video of the encounter. (Careful; it’s pretty intense!)
Mr. King concludes the anecdote by saying: “And I thought to myself, ‘I want to write about this.’ I didn’t know why I wanted to write about it or what I wanted to write about it, but I knew I wanted to write about it.” Mr. King doesn’t believe notebooks are effective for the retention and fostering of ideas. A good idea, he says, is one that “sticks around, sticks around, sticks around.” I tend to agree with him. Isaac Asimov, I recall, mentioned that he would sometimes have a good idea before he went to bed. His wife would tell him to write it down, but Isaac would counter by saying that if the idea was any good, he wouldn’t forget it. Ideas need to percolate; the specifics that may be immortalized if we write the first flush of our inspiration may drown out the deeper truths of what attracted us to the idea in the first place.
Approximately halfway through the masterclass, Mr. King is asked about his preferences with respect to composition: pen and paper or a keyboard? Mr. King says that he prefers to write longhand, especially when jotting down notes. There’s no right answer to the question; it’s certainly a matter of personal preference. Speaking from my own experience, however, I believe that writing your first draft longhand allows you to really FEEL the words you’re putting down. According to the typing test I just took, I can type 83 words per minute. I certainly can’t write that many longhand. To my mind, composing prose longhand creates a bottleneck that forces a writer to devote a split second of additional thought to his or her choices, on both the micro and macro levels. No matter your inclination, I would certainly think that it’s worth experimenting with the other on occasion.
Don’t you love hearing smart writers talk about why certain bad books are bad? It’s also a lot of fun watching an incredibly successful writer ham it up like one of the guys. Isn’t it sad that the lecture is over? I hope you enjoyed seeing Stephen King’s talk with me. We should do this sort of thing again! Drinks are on me!
Cool and useful quotes:
- “One of the worst things that I ever heard for me personally, was I did something with John Irving one time and he said when he’s starting a book, the first thing he does is write the last line. And I thought to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s like eating the frosting off your cake!”
- “I think a writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas.”
- “I’m gonna tell you this whether you’ve read it or not because that spoiler shit is for wusses.”
- One of Mr. King’s comments seems so cool that I made it into a poem/Tumblr image thingy thing:
Novel, Short Story
Andre Dubus III, GWS Lecture Notes, Stephen King, UMass Lowell
Title of Work and its Form: “Monica, before Bolivia,” short story
Author: Arthur Plotnik (on Twitter @artplotnik)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece was first published by Split Lip Magazine, a very cool journal. You can read the story here.
Bonuses: Here is Mr. Plotnik’s Amazon page. Here is a fun and perceptive little article in which Mr. Plotnik points out a certain short-fingered vulgarian’s tendency toward the superlative. Here is a sonnet Mr. Plotnik placed in Off the Coast. The author has strong ties to The Writer magazine, a wonderful publication with which we are all familiar. (I love how the magazine looks now, but I miss the good old days with the “boring” covers… Why must things change?)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Transitions
The protagonist is in a strange time in his life. The first sentence launches us into his plight:
It took some three weeks for Monica Graf to stop calling me even after I’d gathered my self-respect and begged off the humiliating affair.
Monica is married. Monica is crazy. Monica is cruel…but he can’t stay away. (It shouldn’t surprise you that Monica is also incredibly sexy.) The first-person narrator is on a break from the woman when he decides to head off to Bolivia to spend time with Hector, a grad school friend who is extremely fond of the ladies. Before he can head off to La Paz, however, he must spend a little more time in Monica’s orbit. A substantial portion of the story depicts the meeting between the narrator and Monica, who has also been cheating on husband Brent with a gentleman named Mark. The narrator foregoes the opportunity to make love with Monica and returns to his apartment. In an epilogue labeled “After,” the narrator informs us as to what happened in Bolivia and thereafter. (I don’t want to ruin everything; go read the story yourself.)
I was a bit surprised by the structure of the piece. The first 20%, give or take, is an exposition dump that allows you to understand the characters and their situations. You certainly care about the narrator’s plight by the time you get to the middle section, the 70% of the story in which Mr. Plotnik paints the scene in which the lovers meet and talk. The remaining 10% of the story is that epilogue. (Feel free to check my math; I was an English major.)
What surprised me? I was fascinated by the way Mr. Plotnik turned from narration to scenework. As we all know, a writer trains his or her reader how to read a story. For the first few pages of this story, we’re reading a kind of wistful first-person recollection of a lovelorn memory from the protagonist’s life. Then–BOOM–there’s some white space and we’re into a scene-driven piece. This kind of transition could be jarring for a reader. How did Mr. Plotnik switch gears without giving the reader whiplash?
One reason: the use of white space. There’s a double space between the narrator’s decision to contact Monica and the moment they greet each other.
Another reason: an in-your-face acknowledgment of the change. It’s really hard to miss that we’re in a scene when we read Monica’s unintroduced line:
“I don’t know what the fuck you wanted,” Monica typically blurted when I arrived at the reference desk. “I grabbed whatever we had.” She seemed as unfazed by my reappearance as if we’d been in bed all morning. I, on the other hand, broke into a sweat seeing that developed body again and the green fire in the eyes.
Some might say that you shouldn’t toggle between scenework and narration, but you can do anything in your work so long as you help your reader understand what you’re doing.
I also love the idea of a “centerpiece scene.” A man and woman in a museum courtyard…he wants her, she wants him (and her husband and her lover)…she is sexy and brash…he’s drawn to her rudeness for reasons he doesn’t understand. This is a scene in which I enjoy being immersed! Mr. Plotnik contrives his story in the service of the centerpiece scene.
Let’s think of the “centerpiece scene” in terms of film. Now, I love every minute of Pulp Fiction, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the film has a number of bright, shining moments and that Mr. Tarantino contrived the film to emphasize the impact of these moments. For example: in the beginning of the film, Jules and Vincent are just kinda dancing around and talking…there’s not much suspense, not a lot of focused tension. Then what happens when the two men enter the apartment to retrieve the suitcase?
A “centerpiece scene!” Mr. Plotnik and Mr. Tarantino both know what we want to see and they both put the focus on the cool moments they have in mind.
What Should We Steal?
- Guide your reader through the transitions in your work. You’re going from scene to narration and back again? That’s fine…but be sure you hold the reader’s hand or offer him or her bread crumbs to help them follow you along.
- Craft centerpiece scenes. A story can be like a diamond ring. Sure, the gold band is pretty, but everyone is excited about the gem.
2014, Arthur Plotnik, Split Lip Magazine, The Writer, Transitions
Title of Work and its Form: “Stitching the Womb,” creative nonfiction
Author: Pamela Ramos Langley
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in Hippocampus Magazine and can be found right here.
Bonuses: Here is Ms. Langley’s Pinterest feed. Here is a short story Ms. Langley published in The Story Shack. Here is some more fiction that Ms. Langley placed in Drunk Monkeys.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Brevity
The piece begins as Ms. Langley is undergoing infertility treatments. The kind nurse in the gynecologist’s office gives her good news: her hormone levels are high and she may be pregnant. By the end of the vignette, reality sets in and Ms. Langley suffers a miscarriage while driving a rental car. The rest of the piece centers upon the emotions that surround the author and her friends in relation to pregnancy and parenthood. A friend who is also having difficulties getting pregnant laments that some women have children, even though they really don’t “deserve” them. In a sweet vignette, Ms. Langley spends time with Jenna, a little girl whose single mother spends some of her time clubbing. The last of the seven sections finds Ms. Langley spending $650 for a telephone session with a psychic healer. There is no happy ending; Ms. Langley ends the piece in the same state of limbo in which she began it.
Ms. Langley chooses a felicitous structure for the piece. There are plenty of narratives out there in which men and women discuss their problems conceiving children. Instead of opting for a chronological recap of the medical ins and outs of infertility, she instead chooses to zoom in on seven moments that mean something important in her journey to become a parent. (And what powerful moments they are!) Condensing the narrative allows author and reader to get past the mundane parts of this kind of story. When we’re reading creative nonfiction, we really don’t want to know the general feelings of a person who deeply wants a child; we want the specific experiences and feelings of an author. I’m guessing that many men and women who have these kinds of problems find themselves in a park talking to a parent whose child is running around; Ms. Langley omits the exposition we could probably supply for ourselves and makes the shrewd choice of casting the scene in a single paragraph that is told very much from her standpoint. In this way, the focus remains on Ms. Langley’s experience.
While I’m very sad that she had the experience in the first place, I love the way Ms. Langley describes the miscarriage. Instead of TELLING us what happened, she SHOWED us. Even a childless bachelor such as myself can figure out what it means that a pregnant woman with a history of fertility problems experiences “vicious” cramps. Ms. Langley uses imagery to serve as description; the “lurid red stain” on the front seat of the rental car punches us in the gut and we appreciate being treated like adults who paid attention in ninth-grade Health class.
I’m not sure who chose the image that accompanies the story on the Hippocampus web site, but the image of the broken egg upon the sand is as powerful as it is simple. The title of the piece gives you the idea that you’ll be reading about something related to pregnancy; the smashed egg prepares you for the unhappiness that runs through Ms. Langley’s account. What’s the lesson? If you’re an editor, simple images can have a big effect on the perception of the work you’re curating. If you’re the author, perhaps you make a polite suggestion to the editor as to what kind of photograph should be coupled with your work.
What Should We Steal?
- Omit needless scenes and description. We all remember what the first day of school was like. What made YOUR first day of school special? We’ve all experienced the grief of losing a loved one. How does YOUR grief manifest itself in a unique and meaningful manner?
- Avoid strict definitions of what is happening when the reader can figure it out for themselves. Remember “The Contest,” the Seinfeld episode in which the four main characters decided to see who could resist masturbating the longest? None of the characters actually uses the word, “masturbation” or any of its variants. While I’m guessing the restriction was a Standards and Practices thing, the episode is all the better because the characters were treating us like grownups. What else could it mean when George laments that his mother caught him when he was “alone” with a Glamour magazine?
- Contrast emotionally powerful and complicated work with simple illustrations. It’s really not necessary to tell people they should be sad when they read about a person who wants a child, but can’t have one. Showing the reader an unopened crib in a half-painted nursery can be much more powerful.
2014, Brevity, Hippocampus Magazine, Pamela Ramos Langley, Pregnancy
Title of Work and its Form: Entertainment Journalism, nonfiction
Author: Lots of people!
Date of Work: 2000s
Where the Work Can Be Found: Everywhere! TMZ. Yahoo!’s home page. PopSugar.
Bonuses: If repeatedly moving your eyeballs from left to right is too much of a hassle for you, a lot of entertainment journalists are uploading one-minute videos with the same content. All you have to do to see their hard-hitting work is watch a 30-second ad.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience Relationship
It’s hard to stand on the shore and to stop the tide with logic and reason. Entertainment journalism and the like have been around for decades, but I think it’s fair to say that the proliferation of the Internet has made it easy for extremely light journalism to become more prominent in American society. In a 2008 article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asserted that spending so much time in the digital realm is changing the way we perceive information, how we make arguments and even how we think. If you’re anything like me, it probably bums you out when you click on a link and find a page that is laden with stupid ads, tons of large pictures and…oh yeah…there’s a 100-word article that kinda relates to the intriguing title. I put a lot of love and care into the essays I write for GWS, but I know that TMZ’s next young actress nip slip exposé will earn them in one hour the number of hits I get in a year.
Is it helpful to complain about the state of the media landscape? Unfortunately, no. The practical thing to do, I suppose, is to figure out
what we can steal from the click bait and entertainment journalism that has seized such a large audience.
Like it or not, these kinds of sites offer people what they want to see. Have we lost the proverbial “woman on the bus?” In a time before television, people got their whodunit fix from a pulp magazine. Science fiction nerds would read science fiction novels. Today, we pop on a Law & Order or an episode of Star Trek to fill those needs. ComicCon was created to provide a place for fans of comics to congregate. Now, it’s a place for people to find out what will happen on the next season of Homeland. As much as I hate change in society or in my personal life, I understand that change isn’t necessarily bad.
Honey Boo Boo Child has written and sold more books than most of us ever will. What is she doing that people like?
She must be serving some kind of literary need in her audience…how can writers snatch that
If nothing else, we must admit that click bait web sites are really good at getting our attention; these writers and editors are really good at getting us to enter their proverbial doors. Aside from considering SEO while composing our work, what are they doing right?
- Their titles are very direct.
- The connection between the title and the article is generally very clear very quickly.
- The articles often deal with topics and figures that are appealing to a wide range of people.
- The headlines are often questions, even though such titles are sometimes problematic.
A medium is not simply a method by which writers and editors can distribute content. (And isn’t “content” itself a pernicious little term for something that should be a representation of human creativity?) Some content providers tend to violate the implicit agreement between writer and reader. It’s our job to provide our readers with the engaging material they deserve. Do we deserve some money in return? Of course. (Well, that’s a completely different issue.) Some click bait content farm sites begin with one set of ads. Then another. And another. And another. And then a Shockwave ad pops up over the article. Your computer is frozen while a video for the new Disney movie plays. And when you finally get to the article you wanted to read in the first place, you realize it’s 150 words long and it’s really just a summary of another article with the link to that article.
Instead of treating your reader like a mark, think of them as a partner. You are sharing with them the result of hours of toil and years of learning; they’re sharing some of their time and attention with you. Readers should reach “The End” and feel the same way they do when they leave a restaurant: fulfilled and eager to return.
What Should We Steal?
- Compose with the “woman on the bus” in mind. Cell phones can display prose just as easily as they can video. Give her as many reasons as possible to read your work instead of checking her Facebook for the thousandth time that day.
- Treat your audience like a partner instead of a mark. Your obligation to entertain and enlighten increases as the number and size of the ads on your page increases.
Audience Relationship, Click Bait, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian
So I’m working on a The GWS 10 essay about The Beatles. It’s a ton of fun, primarily because I have no excuse but to listen to a ton of Fab Four songs over and over again. I’ve come up with an interesting idea that won’t bear the weight of a full essay, but is perfect for a shorter post.
I’m thinking of the 1965 Lennon/McCartney song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” The song was primarily written by John and was a conscious effort to ventriloquize Bob Dylan. Here’s the charming music video the boys made for the song:
A cool piece and a cool performance, right? So the song is pretty straightforward. The narrator laments that his or her relationship is being judged by others. The narrator must therefore hide his love away and the choice of pronoun in the chorus and title seems to indicate that he is giving you advice based upon his experience. What is society judging about the relationship? That’s up to you. Perhaps this is a gay relationship, perhaps the lovers came together after joint infidelity…you decide.
Check out some of the lyrics in the second verse (punctuation mine; John Lennon won’t answer my calls):
How can I even try? I can never win.
Hearing them, seeing them in the state I’m in.
How could she say to me love will find a way?
Gather ’round, all you clowns. Let me hear you say…
It seems that many writers of fiction are making the stylistic choice to omit quotation marks in dialogue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any stylistic choice, of course; it’s a writer’s job to try and figure out which combinations of letters, words, symbols and white space will communicate the feeling in his or her head. Now, this is a song, so we can’t really be sure where John would put the quotation marks in the dialogue in Verse 2. The lines do, however, offer a good example of the risks and rewards of breaking convention. So consider the snippet of lyric as I’ve typed it out; pretend it’s a poem or a bit of a short story. What’s the effect of the omitted quotation marks?
Reward – The artist wrote whatever he darn well pleased in the way he intended.
Look, if you want to leave out the quotes, go for it. It’s your work and you can do anything you like.
Reward – The prose ends up looking a little more like a “wall of text” and seems more stream-of-consciousness.
If a character is supposed to have disconnected thoughts or is trapped in an illogical situation, omitting the quotation marks can communicate some of that feeling to the reader.
Risk – Your reader may be alienated because your dialogue doesn’t look like dialogue.
As the great Lee K. Abbott says, it’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun. In general, we don’t want our readers wondering what the heck we’re trying to say. Instead of being confused about the literal fundamentals of the work, we want them to grapple with our big themes or to empathize with the plights of our characters.
Risk – It may be impossible to distinguish dialogue from narration.
The end quotation serves an important purpose: it tells the reader when the speaker is done speaking. Any prose outside of the quotation marks counts as narration and isn’t literally spoken aloud by a character.
Here’s my point. What are the literal words spoken by the character who is talking to the narrator? Without the quotation marks, all we have are educated guesses that are born out of meta-level thought that is disconnected to some extent from the song’s actual story. So which is it?
How could she say to me…
- “Love will find a way?” – Aw, poor narrator. Either she’s challenging him or she’s blowing him off. Sad.
- “Love will find a way? Gather ’round, all you clowns.” – Whoa, there are clowns around, too? Did “she” invite them? It seems a bit cold to interrupt a discussion that is meaningful to the narrator by inviting clowns in.
- “Love will find a way? Gather ’round, all you clowns. Let me hear you say…” – What do you want the clowns to say?!?!?!
- “Love will find a way? Gather ’round, all you clowns. Let me hear you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.'” – Okay, now that’s just straight-up cruel. This guy pours his heart out to a woman and she calls over a bunch of clowns and enjoins them to chant that he shouldn’t have said how he felt.
So what’s the diagnosis in the end? I guess there isn’t one. Asking writers not to play with words and how they appear on the page is a fool’s errand. It seems to me as though leaving out the quotation marks is a tool in the writer’s toolbox; he or she must use it as judiciously as any other.
What do you think? Leave a comment or discuss the issue on the Great Writers Steal Facebook page.
1965, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Quotation Marks, The Beatles, You've Got to Hide Your Love Away