Title of Work and its Form: “Breatharians,” short story
Author: Callan Wink
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted the October 22, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. At the time of this writing, the story was available in full on the New Yorker web site. “Breatharians” was subsequently selected for The Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is what Trevor Berrett thought of the story. Here is what Teddy Mitrosilis thought. Consider checking out Mr. Wink’s first collection: Dog Run Moon: Stories.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
August is a young man who is living between two worlds. To paraphrase Britney, he’s not a boy, not yet a man. His mother and father live in separate homes on the same property. His body is strong enough to allow him to kill cats without remorse, but he mourns the loss of his “birth dog.”
The inciting incident of the story is the moment when August’s father tells his son to “get rid of the damn” wild cats in his barn. August is happy to take on the work; he wants pocket money. The story covers the next couple days as the cat slaughter looms in the distance and the reader learns about the protagonist’s situation. It seemed to me as though Mr. Wink was most interested in painting the portrait of his interesting character. There’s an uneasy peace in August’s life: a peace that will be shattered when he finally figures out more about life. Continue Reading
Best American 2013, Callan Wink, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “A Voice in the Night,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the December 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, the story is available online without a subscription. “A Voice in the Night” was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and is featured in the anthology.
Bonuses: Very cool! Electric Literature has published Mr. Millhauser’s “Cathay” online for your enjoyment. (Presumably with the consent of the author.) Here is an interview Mr. Millhauser gave to Jim Shepard that was published in BOMB. Here is Mr. Milhauser’s Amazon page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythological Retellings
This is a story about the fleeting nature of faith. (To me, at least.) It’s crucial to break down the structure. The story makes four trips through this series of perspectives:
I: Samuel. As in Samuel and Eli from the Bible. Each “I” section recounts a little more of the tale.
II: A seven-year-old boy who is growing up in Stratford, Connecticut. He is going through an interesting time in his life; the Sunday school teachers at the Jewish Community Center have told him the story of Samuel and Eli and he wants desperately to hear his own calling.
III: “The Author” is the seven-year-old boy at the age of sixty-eight. He seems to be preoccupied with memories of his youth. His mind and heart are not filled with the stories of the Bible, but with his own. The story ends as “The Author” reflects upon the Muse and the way in which stories can keep us up at night and dominate our lives while giving us something to live for.
Mr. Millhauser engages in an obvious (and perfectly wonderful) form of literary theft. The gentleman appropriated the story of Samuel and Eli from the Old Testament book of Samuel. There is, of course, no problem in retelling a story that has literally been rewritten for thousands of years. In doing so, Mr. Millhauser taps into the feelings the reader has for Judeo-Christian mythology, whatever they may be.
Mr. Millhauser certainly isn’t just stealing from those who conceived and passed down the stories from the Old Testament. The structure of “A Voice in the Night” mimics the relationship that people have with stories. (And mimics even more strongly the relationship religious folks have with their scriptural documents.) Without being too obvious about it, Mr. Millhauser is chronicling “the author’s” lifelong search for truth and his desire to understand what he is “meant” to do and to be.
How can we borrow from Mr. Millhauser’s borrowing of the Bible story? We can pinch a different timeless story. What about the story of the Prodigal Son? (Even though that one always drove me nuts.) Honestly, you can just go right to your copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, open the book at random and plant your index finger onto a story ripe for adaptation or stealing. And if you don’t have a copy for some reason, you can read the book online.
- What if you blend a contemporary story with the star-crossed love of Pyramus and Thisbe? (Well, Shakespeare already did that, but you can, too.)
- What about crafting a father-son story that is influenced by that of Daedalus and Icarus?
- What could the Elysian Fields be like? (Aside from a great place to play baseball?)
Mr. Millhauser knows that he’s breaking a lot of rules and that his structure could alienate some of his readers. Why doesn’t he lose anyone? Why, because he makes the important parts as obvious as he can. Look at how Mr. Millhauser begins each of the first three sections:
- “The boy Samuel wakes in the dark. Something’s not right. Most commentators agree…” We learn that this section is about Samuel. After we read about “most commentators,” it’s clear that Mr. Millhauser’s narrator is referring to a mythological story of some sort. Even if you don’t know the specific Bible story, you still get the idea.
- “It’s a summer night in Stratford, Connecticut, 1950. The boy, seven years old, lies awake in his bed…” Mr. Millhauser doesn’t mess around. We know he’s jumped around in time and that the main character of the sections labeled “II” will be this boy. We’re not worried about what happened to Samuel; we know we’ll see him again if there’s another “I” section.
- “The Author is sixty-eight years old, in good health, most of his teeth, half his hair, not dead yet, though lately he hasn’t been sleeping well.” Great. It’s clear we’re onto a new protagonist for the “III” sections.
If Mr. Millhauser hadn’t held our hands a little bit, we may have found it difficult to understand the story’s dramatic present. (Such as it is.) When we deviate from the “standard conventions” of storytelling, we risk losing the reader. The more complicated the experiment, the greater the potential for confusion. It’s our responsibility as writers, therefore, to follow Mr. Millhauser’s lead and to provide sizable bread crumbs.
What Should We Steal?
- Make a conscious effort to turn an old story into one that is brand new. Oh, hey, check it out. Here are some more incredible stories just waiting to be stolen.
- Feel free to mess with your reader, so long as you keep the basics clear. The reader should only be disoriented in proper measure.
2012, Best American 2013, Mythological Retellings, Steven Millhauser, The Bible, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Chapter Two,” short story
Author: Antonya Nelson
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story was first published in the March 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Subscribers can read the story here. The story was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and can be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is a Q&A in which Ms. Nelson discusses her story. Here is an interview Ms. Nelson granted to The Missouri Review. Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Whoa! Here’s a video of Ms. Nelson reading her story!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Hil is an alcoholic. Is there any better storyteller than an addict who consumes a substance designed to release inhibitions?Hil is tired of her own life, so she enjoys talking about that of her neighbor, Bergeron Love (great name). Bergeron is a kind of Blanche DuBois character, a little bit older and quite sure about what the world should be like. (And how others are falling short of her standards.) Discussing her neighbor also seems to be a way for Hil to distract from her own issues. Bergeron is certainly an interesting character; she’s always calling the police on other people in the neighborhood or running around naked. As you might expect, her son Allistair isn’t very jazzed about the latter. Sadly, Bergeron Love doesn’t survive the story. After we learn of the death, the reader is told more about how Hil lies at A.A. meetings; she leads a dual life. Outside of meetings, she’s a drinker. In the group, she’s been sober for nearly a year. The last few paragraphs center upon how Hil has contextualized the Bergeron Love story and what she thinks may become of Allistair.
Do I love the idea of using the storytelling tendencies of an addict to facilitate a story? Sure. But what I love most about the opening piece is the way Ms. Nelson slid between the meetings (the dramatic present) and the flashbacks to the events she was describing. The technique gave me the feeling that I was reading a prose version of a TV clip show. What’s a clip show? It’s an episode of a TV program in which the dramatic present is broken up with video taken from earlier episodes of the show. Doing a clip show is a great way to save money–you only need to write and shoot a few minutes of narrative–but they can also be boring. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the best in television history. In 2004, the living cast reunited to update all of us as to what the characters have been doing since the show ended. Look what happens after all of the characters get together.
“Hey, Alan. Remember that time Laura told everyone you were bald?”
Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo… We see the footage in which Laura tries to apologize.
“Hey, Rob. Remember that time you broke your leg skiing after insisting to Laura you’d be fine?”
Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo… We see the footage in which Rob tries to pretend his body isn’t in massive pain.
Now, I’m not saying that Ms. Nelson is relying upon a creative crutch. (Many TV programs that do clip shows are doing just that.) What I am saying is that I love the way Ms. Nelson mimics the structure of a clip show. Check out the beginning of the story. Hill is in the middle of telling a story:
Tired of telling her own story at A.A., Hil was trying to tell the story of her neighbor. It had been a peculiar week. “So she comes to my house a few nights ago, like around nine, bing-bong, drunk as a skunk, as usual, right in the middle of this show my roommate and I are watching.”
Now look what happens in the next paragraph:
“Looks like somebody’s not getting enough attention,” Hil had murmured as she unlocked the door.
Can you spot it? How Ms. Nelson transitioned between the dramatic present and the “clips” in the clip show? Okay, here’s the answer. Ms. Nelson’s narrator employs a different tense. She goes from the past tense to the past perfect.
Past: Hil was trying to tell the story.
Past Perfect: Hil had murmured…
Switching between the A.A. meeting and the events for which Bergeron was present may have been very confusing in the hands of a lesser writer. (Such as myself.) Instead, Ms. Nelson allows her narrator to switch up the tense, efficiently communicating what was happening and when.
Ms. Nelson is indeed playing with time a lot. One of her big responsibilities in the story is to make sure we know where the characters are and when. Look what Ms. Nelson says halfway through the story when she wants to zip around through the space/time continuum:
On that earlier naked night…
Erin McGraw was one of my world-class and extremely generous teachers at Ohio State. I had already understood the principle subconsciously, but she knocked the point home: fiction is great because you can simply type a phrase such as the one I’ve just spotlighted.
Meanwhile, at the ranch…
Having just set her barn on fire, Alexia arrived at the rock climbing facility with a new sense of purpose…
After eating dinner, Bob and Laura got into their spaceship and parked at Mars (Literally) Bars for dessert.
If a scene is getting boring? End it and start another. If you need your character to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon? Not a problem. Yes, your choices need to make sense, but all superpowers must be wielded with discretion.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ different tenses to slide between flashbacks and the dramatic present. Telling people that you’re messing around with the dramatic present doesn’t have to be clunky. Remember, on clip shows, the characters will often stare into the camera and say, “WOW. WE HAVEN’T FOUGHT THIS MUCH SINCE THAT TIME WE GOT LOCKED IN THAT WALK-IN COOLER TOGETHER.” Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo…
- Assert the fiction writer’s control over space and time. Prose writers can easily fast-forward past the boring parts or simply plop your characters where you want them to go.
2012, Antonya Nelson, Best American 2013, Chapter Two, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker, Time Travel
Title of Work and its Form: “Referential,” short story
Author: Lorrie Moore
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor selected the story to appear in Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Moore did with The Paris Review. Here‘s a brief New Yorker interview in which Ms. Moore discusses “Referential.” Here is what Karen Carlson thought about the story. Here is another interesting discussion about the piece.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration
The female protagonist is a widower whose sixteen-year-old son has some mental health problems. He cuts himself and has been institutionalized. Her boyfriend Pete has been around for a decade, but he’s now as far away from the narrator as the son is. She and Pete visit the son, whose problems only seem worse when added to customary teenage rebellion. During a quiet scene in her home, she and Pete talk around their problems until she fibs: “Someone is phoning here from your apartment.” Pete hightails it, confirming that his affection is alienated. The story ends with another phone call; “she” answers the phone, but no one answers her.
This might be a fairly short story because of its genesis. Ms. Moore borrowed some of the tone and ideas from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Both pieces are brief and both deal with a couple whose relationship is under stress and with mental illness. Mr. Nabokov and Ms. Moore both end their stories with ringing phones. Ms. Moore certainly didn’t “steal” in an improper manner, of course. She simply thought of “Signs and Symbols” and allowed her muse to dictate a new story while Mr. Nabokov’s work was rattling around in her head.
When Henry Ford built his first cars, he had the automobiles of others in mind as he scribbled down designs. The makers of the first automobiles thought about horse-drawn carriages. The makers of horse-drawn carriages thought about more primitive wheeled vehicles. The point is that we’re all influence by those who came before us. Why follow Ms. Moore’s example with a public domain story that may have slipped out of regular readership?
We’ve all read “Young Goodman Brown.” Mr. Hawthorne wrote a lot of other short stories that were popular in his time. Why not make a cup of tea, curl up with one of his lesser-known works and see what comes to mind?
I love the 1001 Nights. (You should, too.) These stories are very much in the public domain; what would happen if you adapt one of the tales into a modern setting? What does your muse say about the very different ways in which contemporary people solve their romantic problems?
You probably know who Vladimir Nabokov was. What about the writers whose work is no longer given a great deal of critical attention. Read the stories and poems in an ancient issue of The Atlantic Monthly and see what you come up with. If nothing else, you’ll likely be the only person in the world who has interacted with T.R. Sullivan’s “The Whirligig of Fortune.” And check it out! Sullivan stole his ending from one of our favorite writers! (Do you know which one?)
Ms. Moore has a LOT of exposition that she needs to dump in the first couple pages of the story. If we don’t understand the protagonist’s relationship with Pete, we won’t care about the end of the story. If we don’t understand the struggles she has had with her son, we won’t feel the full weight of her situation. What are some of the techniques Ms. Moore employs?
- A provocative first sentence:
For the third time in three years,
Uh oh…that’s a problem unless we’re talking about winning the lottery.
Okay, there are multiple characters in this undesirable situation.
talked about what would be a suitable birthday present
The characters must be fairly close; how often have you asked a cabbie what kind of present you should get your significant other?
Okay, exclusion by pronoun. I’ll point out more about this in a moment.
Aaaaand there we go. The son has some kind of serious mental health problem.
- Efficient use of pronouns. Ms. Moore indicates the boy’s parentage with the simple use of an unlikely pronoun. It’s “her” deranged son, not “theirs.” A lesser writer (such as myself) may have wasted a whole sentence on this bit of exposition.
- Condensing the basics into description. We need to know how old the kid is. An eighteen-year-old in a mental institution carries far different connotations from a five-year-old in the same place. We also want to know how long Pete (the “not the father”) has been around. In the second paragraph, Ms. Moore gives us all of this information in one sentence.
- A pushy narrator. Instead of beating around the bush, Ms. Moore simply has her narrator tell you why Pete hasn’t committed to the protagonist:
(He did not blame her son – or did he?)
Employing these and other techniques is particularly important when you’re writing a story as short as “Referential.” Very short stories are harder to write because EVERY LITTLE ELEMENT MUST BE PERFECT. On the other hand, this efficiency makes the story that much more beautiful.
What Should We Steal?
- Make a conscious effort to gain inspiration from a classic or forgotten work. Reach outside your comfort zone or familiar bookshelves for new literary soil to till.
- Condense your exposition bombs in as many ways as you can manage. We want to spend more time watching your characters interact and less time learning the basics about them.
2012, Best American 2013, Inspiration, Lorrie Moore, Nabokov, Referential, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Miss Lora,” short story
Author: Junot Diaz
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, the story is available for free on the New Yorker web site. You will also find the story in his collection This is How You Lose Her. You will also find the story in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories.
Bonuses: Very cool! The Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Nathan Gelgud to adapt “Miss Lora” into the form of the graphic novel. You can view it here. Writer and critic Charles May shares some thoughts about “Miss Lora.” You may or may not agree with them, but you should enjoy the discussion. Here are my thoughts about the Junot Diaz story, “Alma.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition
You are a young Dominican man whose brother has recently died. Your girlfriend Paloma is the “only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason.” Why? She doesn’t want to make any “mistakes” that would prevent her from going to college and succeeding in life. That’s why you start sleeping with Miss Lora, a teacher who is so skinny that she “made Iggy Pop look chub.” Miss Lora makes you cheeseburgers and “gets naked like a pro.” Time goes on. Miss Lora gets a better job, you and Paloma go to different colleges. One of your college girlfriends tries to confront Miss Lora for sexually abusing you, but Miss Lora never enters the door. Years later, you try to track Miss Lora down.
Look at what Mr. Diaz does in the first few pages. After establishing that the bulk of the narrative will take place in the past (“Years later,”), Mr. Diaz heaps the pathos onto the reader. The narrator has some kind of interesting sexual affair and his brother is dead and he’s very in love (sexual and otherwise) and his current girlfriend isn’t quite fitting the bill. The first three sections increase in length; Mr. Diaz is doing what I call the “flood and release.” The reader is given some highly emotional content…and then the narrative jumps, providing the reader with time to digest and contextualize the narrator’s unique situation.
At least one of Mr. Diaz’s lines made me stop and consider what he meant. About halfway in, the narrator describes Miss Lora by saying, “She gets naked like a pro.” I could think of at least two meanings for the sentence:
- Mr. Diaz could be making use of the “like a pro” idiom.
- Mr. Diaz could be referring to people such as prostitutes who do indeed get naked for a living. (I gather that the nudity is a prelude.)
I’m not sure other readers will see ambiguity in the sentence, but the line stuck out to me for whatever reason. I suppose what I’m recommending is that you take a moment to consider something that may not occur to you very much: the literal meaning of idioms. Why do we lightheartedly call a group of judgmental folks a “peanut gallery?” Why have we chosen to point out that congenital complainers are “the squeaky wheels” that “get the grease?” Why does a sale get us “more bang for the buck?” The reader (if fluent in English, of course), absorbs the language as a figure of speech. The real words remain, however. I wonder what linguistics and other really smart people think about this subject. How do the literal and figurative meanings of idioms affect our reading?
Mr. Diaz made a choice in this story that isn’t to my personal taste. I hasten to say that I understand many great writers make this choice…and they’re not necessarily wrong. Mr. Diaz eschews quotation marks in his dialogue. As with any decision, there are costs and benefits. Why do I make the personal choice to use quotation marks? Here are a couple big reasons:
- They eliminate confusion as to which sentences are spoken by a character and which are contributed by a narrator. Maybe it’s just me, but I always find ambiguities and spend time trying to figure out which words are which. When I write a story, I want my reader thinking about the characters and situation, not trying to divine what I mean on so basic a level.
- They offer a clear distinction between dialogue and non-dialogue scenes. When I see a bunch of quotation marks, I know that the writer is crafting a scene between people instead of offering the narrator free rein.
What Should We Steal?
- Imbue your exposition with an ebb and flow. The release of exposition should resemble a pleasant weekend drive. Your foot is sometimes on the gas and sometimes you coast to enjoy the scenery.
- Take a moment to consider the literal meaning of idioms. Literal and figurative meanings influence the way we perceive a sentence, don’t they?
- Complete a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether or not you want to employ quotation marks. Writing is an artistic pursuit, isn’t it? We should all have some justification for the choices we make.
2012, Best American 2013, Exposition, Junot Diaz, LeTourneau, Miss Lora, Sarah Jones, Second Person, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “ID,” short story
Author: Joyce Carol Oates (on Twitter @JoyceCarolOates)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the March 29, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. The kind folks at that publication have been kind enough to offer the story online for your enjoyment. “ID” was subsequently chosen for Best American 2011 and can be found in that anthology.
Bonuses: Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here is a cool review and discussion of the story over at Perpetual Folly. Here is a Wall Street Journal article about Ms. Oates and the touching way in which she dealt with losing her husband, one of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective
You, kind reader, are witness to one of the worst days of Lisette Mulvey’s life. Thirteen-year-old Lisette had half of a beer before school; these things are easier when you have an absentee father and your mother often takes off for long stretches. The story chronicles a few hours in Lisette’s bad day, but Ms. Oates intertwines flashbacks and exposition with the dramatic present. We learn about Lisette’s crush on a boy and her mother’s poor behavior. Lysette’s mother works in the casinos of Atlantic City and seems to fit in with the seedier part of the AC culture. The officers (one male and one female) show Lisette a body in the morgue; the young woman doesn’t ID the body as her mother. The female officer tells her it’s all right; there are other ways to identify the woman who was found in a drainage ditch. The officers bring her to school, where Lisette tries to fall back into the comfort of her friends.
Ms. Oates is indisputably one of our American literary lionesses and has been at the top of her game for quite some time, with no end in sight. What is one of the million things that I love about her writing, and this story in particular? Ms. Oates produces work that is both of its time and timeless at the same time. In a way, she is like Alfred Hitchcock. No matter that Hitch was working with people from a different generation; he always produced films that felt immediate and spoke to anyone who saw them. Ms. Oates is the same way. You can tell that Ms. Oates has boundless curiosity because she knows how it feels to go to high school in 2010. She understands how a thirteen-year-old girl in 2010 feels about herself and her friends. As I get older and slightly wiser, I realize that I’m losing a little bit of this kind of knowledge. I haven’t gone trick-or-treating in more than twenty years. Could I really remember what it feels like? How to say this…romance has been a stranger for a while. Could I really depict young love with any fidelity? Ms. Oates would have no problem with these situations and emotions because of her deep understanding of humanity.
We’ve all heard that we should “write what we know.” Yes, that is good advice, but if we followed that advice with too much dedication, we would have no science fiction or horror or stories in which the nerdy guy gets the cheerleader. Ms. Oates points out in her author’s note that “ID” was inspired by the untimely death of her husband. A funeral director asked Ms. Oates to identify her husband’s body—she didn’t want to see it again. To my knowledge, Ms. Oates does not have first-hand experience of being a thirteen-year-old young woman tasked with identifying her dead mother. She does, however, KNOW what it is like to face the stark reality that the person you love is dead and to see their body in the morgue. We’re all human, right? It is more important to understand the emotional experiences that you are chronicling than to have first-hand experience on the topic. (Especially if you’re writing fiction, of course.)
When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of “high school” stories; I believe that’s perfectly natural. I certainly see a lot of “dorm stories” when my students turn in their work. (This tendency is perfectly natural, too.) We must remember that we have the license to write about anything we like. What fun would it be if we only write about people who are just like us who live lives just like ours? Boring!
Ms. Oates had a bit of a challenge in the story because she needed to get a lot of exposition into a story that is pretty much in real-time. As I pointed out, the exposition is woven in with the material that is in the dramatic present. Why aren’t these sections a bit of a roadblock? Why don’t they cause the reader’s attention to flag? Ms. Oates builds a ton of suspense into the story.
- Why do “they” want to see Lisette’s ID?
- “Some older guys had got her high on beer, for a joke.” Will Lisette’s drunkenness get her in trouble or complicate things?
- How will J.C. respond to the note that Lisette sent him? Will he break her heart?
- Mom doesn’t seem to be a very upstanding citizen. Complications?
- Uh oh. Two police officers want to see Lisette.
- Will the body turn out to be that of Lisette’s mother?
One reason the story is so very compelling is that the emotional and narrative foundation of the story is sprinkled in with grace and in such a way that Ms. Oates creates mysteries to which we want the answers! These “roadblocks” speed the reader along instead of holding them back.
What Should We Steal?
- Devote yourself to observing and trying to understand humanity. One of a writer’s primary duties is to reproduce the human experience on the page with as much fidelity as possible.
- Write what you know…within limits. If we followed this advice to the letter, we wouldn’t have any science fiction.
- Introduce “mysteries” into your work to make exposition all the more compelling. Your stories should introduce meaningful dilemmas anyway; use them to make your exposition even more of a treat to the reader.
2010, ID, Joyce Carol Oates, Perspective, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Tenth of December,” short story
Author: George Saunders
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story premiered in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. You can read the story here. You can also find the story in the 2012 anthology of Best American Short Stories. The story headlines Mr. Saunders’s book Tenth of December. Why not pick it up from an independent bookseller such as Reno, Nevada’s Grassroots Books? (They seem very cool!)
Bonuses: Here is an interview in which Mr. Saunders discusses “Tenth of December.” Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought about the story. (She makes interesting points about the POV and describes her understandable “struggle” with the story.) Here is Mr. Saunders’s page at This American Life. (You know you love This American Life.) Yes, Mr. Saunders is a very influential man.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
Robin is a slightly chubby schoolboy. Don is a middle-aged father who is suffering from cancer and is determined to commit suicide. How are these two unrelated characters related? One of those good, old-fashioned twists of fate. Don leaves his coat on a chair to help the authorities locate his body. Unfortunately, Robin decides to try and do a good deed and bring it to him. Robin takes a shortcut across a frozen pond. What happens when Robin falls into the freezing water?
Mr. Saunders’s story is a very interesting study. The narrator is a very close third person alternating between Robin and Don. The narrator absorbs each character’s idiosyncracies; Robin is pretending he is talking to a girl he likes and that he is surrounded by supernatural woodland creatures and Don’s brain is failing because of illness. I noticed that the story “threw” Ms. Carlson at first; the same thing happened to me, but in a different way. For a few pages, I was under the impression that the “Nethers” were real. (You know, short story real.) Mr. Saunders describes the world of the Nethers and what they look like and how they act and so on, going into a great deal of depth. Very quickly, however, I was right on track. Mr. Saunders had to do what he did in order to immerse the reader in Robin’s brain and to establish the close POV that works so well in the story. What lesson can we take away from this? A reminder that the first couple pages of your piece establish the unique world in which your characters live. Readers are willing to follow you ANYWHERE, so long as you make the ride smooth.
Think about Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Remember the first sentence?
One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.
Kafka (like Saunders) doesn’t mess around when establishing his conceit. Guess what, Kafka seems to say. This is a world in which Gregor Samsa turned into a giant bug. Deal with it. Saunders has the same strong kind of declaration: Hey, reader. You’re in the head of a young boy who likes a girl named Suzanne and has a great imagination.
The choice to craft the story from the separated points of view of two different characters gives Mr. Saunders at least two big bonuses:
- Mr. Saunders can offer, very gracefully, two different accounts of the same event. And why not? Each POV character is experiencing them on their own terms.
- Mr. Saunders can allow the characters the same kind of first-person confessional without allowing the other character to get in the way. We don’t need Don’s commentary on Robin’s crush on Suzanne and Robin shouldn’t be allowed to give us his commentary as Don does what he can to keep the kid warm.
As we can all attest, coming up with titles is a pain. How did Mr. Saunders do it? “Tenth of December” is great because even if it’s not the date on which the story takes place, it evokes a time in which the weather (in the Northeast) is cold, but not cold enough for there to be ten feet of ice on the local lake. I also get a Tropic of Cancer vibe from the title. (Ooh, and that’s one of Don’s problems. Cool.) So here’s another title formula:
TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.
What Should We Steal?
- Think of your first few pages as orientation for your reader. Before you get in a ride in an amusement park, you spend 45 minutes in the queue, learning about the “world” of the attraction. (Your stories are attractions too, right?)
- Employ parallel and severely limited third-person points of view. You gain contrast and a kind of intimacy.
- TITLE FORMULA #8675309: The date on which the story takes place, or a date on which the story COULD take place.
2011, Best American 2012, George Saunders, Point of View, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “M&M World,” short story
Author: Kate Walbert
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published in the May 30, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, you can find the story on their web site. The story was selected for Best American Short Stories 2012 and can also be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is the NPR archive of their stories about Ms. Walbert. This review of the story is not entirely favorable, but the writer seems earnest and the motivation for her criticism seems pure. A very interesting discussion takes place after this review at the excellent blog The Mookse and the Gripes.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Ginny made a promise to her daughters and now Maggie and Olivia are finally getting to go to M&M World in Times Square. Along the way, Ginny considers life’s ever-present dangers as Ms. Walters alternates between depicting the dramatic present and how Ginny related to “the girls’ father.” Before long, the inevitable happens: Maggie disappears into the M&M World crowd. After a moment of terror, Ginny gets the good news: Maggie had found her way to the stock room. As Ginny prepares her daughters to leave, she considers the experience in the context of an in-joke she and “the girls’ father” shared.
Well, Ms. Walbert uses white space to split the story into twelve sections. When you are reading the story for fun, you can simply work your way through them and enjoy the story. When you read analytically—which we should all do from time to time—it’s probably a good idea to jot down what happens in each section. That way, it’s easier for you to see how each piece contributes to the whole.
- Introduces Ginny, Maggie and Olivia and their situation. They’re going to M&M World. Danger is introduced in the form of Ginny’s concern over Olivia getting hit by a car. The girls trip each other. Danger. Introduction of “the girls’ father” and a vacation they took in Chile on which she saw a whale.
- Ginny considers her flaws.
- Arrival at M&M World. The ladies get ice cream.
- Flashback to vacation in Patagonia. The romantic moment when Ginny decided to have children.
- Ginny thinks about society. Maggie drops her ice cream.
- The women walk through M&M World.
- The scene in which “the girls’ father” discuss their breakup and how they will tell the girls about it.
- Maggie is lost.Fear.
- Back to the divorce discussion.
- Maggie is located.
- Rumination about the whale and what it meant to Ginny and “the girls’ mother.”
- The women leave the store; the dramatic present is united with the whale memory.
The third-person narrator allows Ms. Walbert to alternate somewhat between the dramatic present and flashback in order to build the significance of previous events. I don’t have any children, but I do believe that every parent is going to lose a child in the store at some point. Right? The little buggers are built to slip away and hide. On its own, that narrative may be a little thin. Ms. Walbert makes this common experience something far more special by including those flashbacks and making the story about Ginny losing her children, as opposed to some generic mother losing her children.
Ms. Walbert also uses her narrator in an unexpected way. I noticed early on that the narrator is very strongly aligned with Ginny. Look at the way the narrator characterizes the little girls: “They are gorgeous, bright-eyed, brilliant girls: one tall, one short, pant legs dragging, torn leggings, sneakers that glow in the dark or light up with each step, boom boom boom.” The statement seems to come from a person who cares about the girls more than an impartial narrator might. I’m particularly interested in the way that Ms. Walbert’s narrator refers to the ex-husband. He’s always called “the girls’ father.” The narrator withholds a name and seems to have something against the guy. The reader wonders why, all because of the way in which the narrator refers to him.
What Should We Steal?
- Contrast the dramatic present with significant moments from the past. Past is prologue; instead of TELLING the reader what an important moment means, you can SHOW them.
- Decide your narrator’s allegiances and exploit them. Your third person narrator could be standing beside your protagonist or could be sitting across a table from the protagonist with arms folded. The story will be influenced by the choice you make.
2011, Best American 2012, Kate Walbert, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Miracle Polish,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story premiered in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, you can read “Miracle Polish” right here. Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta chose the story for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.
Bonuses: Here is what Short A Day thought about “Miracle Polish.” Here is a lengthy and interesting interview with Mr. Millhauser over at BOMB. Here‘s “A Voice in the Night,” another Millhauser story from The New Yorker.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Momentum
Inciting incident: A peddler shows up at the first person narrator’s home. The old man is selling Miracle Polish, a product that will put a special shine on any mirror in your home. The narrator watches as the peddler leaves; there’s a perfectly appropriate moment of oddness as the salesman locks eyes with the narrator before leaving. The narrator cleans a mirror with the polish…he looks younger and fresher. His girlfriend Monica is tired, too. She doesn’t seem to like the happier-looking Monica she sees in the mirror. The narrator soon puts mirrors on every wall in his home, causing tension in his relationship with Monica. She believes that he prefers the more youthful version of her that he sees in the mirror. There’s a perfectly inevitable conclusion in which Chekhov’s mirrors are dealt with in proper fashion.
The story reminded me a bit of an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is a massive compliment. Mr. Millhauser creates a through-a-mirror-darkly magical realism world in the same way that Rod Serling did in many of the Twilight Zone scripts. Everything in the narrator’s world is perfectly normal…except for the Miracle Polish. There’s the sense of impending danger; we’re led to wonder why the peddler locked eyes with the narrator in such a strange way. There’s a “hook” in the beginning that looms over the entire story. That second bottle of Miracle Polish…the peddler advised the narrator to buy one, but he didn’t. This hook is paid off in the final paragraph of the story. As in the best Twilight Zone scripts, the “strange” things, the magical fantasy, all relate to the rest of the story and its theme. That unpurchased second bottle also creates a kind of countdown…will the narrator run out of Miracle Polish? What will happen when he does?
Mr. Millhauser also creates characters that truly belong in this story. The middle-aged man feels run-down and doesn’t seem to like what he has become. He’s just the kind of guy who could use a look in the mirror. So Mr. Millhauser offers him a particularly clear look into one. His girlfriend Monica has a habit of “assessing her looks mercilessly.” As she is first described, I thought Monica was a teenage young woman. Instead, she merely has a few of those qualities. It’s been quite some time since I was around a teenage young woman, but I’m guessing mirrors still play an important role in their lives. These two characters are confronted by mirrors; one likes the reflection and the other doesn’t. That means tension! Whoo hoo!
Another tactic Mr. Millhauser employs is apparent when you look at the left margin of the story. One of the problems I have is deciding which parts of the story to render in scene. Mr. Millhauser creates an around-the-campfire feeling by offering long paragraphs and sliding through time a great deal. Which scenes are absolutely necessary? We need to see the narrator and Monica looking into the mirrors. And arguing about the mirrors. And what happens during the climax, when the conflict comes to a head.
What Should We Steal?
- Relate the ending of your story to its beginning. Your story should make some kind of unified comment about humanity or the world or whatever, right? The theme should be as consistent as the characters and setting.
- Give your characters what they deserve. Four horny teenage boys want to have sex? Make them forge a pact with each other to get laid. Your character is a liar and manipulator? Put him or her in a political drama.
- Flatten out the left margin. You can create narrative momentum by focusing less on describing scenes and more on describing story.
2011, Best American 2012, Narrative Momentum, Steven Millhauser, The New Yorker, The Twilight Zone
Title of Work and its Form: “Creation Myth,” nonfiction
Author: Malcolm Gladwell (on Twitter @Gladwell)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. You may be able to find it here if you’re a subscriber. The piece was also selected for the 2012 edition of Best American Essays.
Bonuses: Jealousy alert! Mr. Gladwell appeared on The Colbert Report. Here is the archive of Mr. Gladwell’s work for The New Yorker. Here is a fun bur brief profile/interview of Mr. Gladwell that was published by AllThingsD.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Diction
I’ve always been a sucker for the story: Long ago in a valley far, far away, the rock star engineers of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created just about everything we associate with modern computing. The graphical user interface. The mouse. The laser printer. The problem? Xerox PARC never capitalized upon the bounty created in their labs. Mr. Gladwell begins the piece by reminding the reader of the biggest legend relating to Xerox PARC. The story has been that Steve Jobs’s 1979 visit to the lab was the catalyst for Apple’s later success. Jobs glimpsed the future and snatched it from Xerox’s grasp. This impression is not entirely true. As Mr. Gladwell points out, “the truth is a bit more complicated.” With the subject and structure established, Mr. Gladwell spends most of the piece discussing his real point: history shows us that the innovative don’t always succeed because they may not have the entrepreneurial skills needed to turn the dreams into reality. “Visionaries,” he points out, “are limited by their visions.” Mr. Gladwell uses some diverse examples; military tactics developed differently in Israel and the Soviet Union and the United States because of the resources and capabilities available to each. Mr. Gladwell brings in interviews with PARC engineers and other people who are important to the story. The climax seems to come in an apt reference to the Rolling Stones. The boundless creativity of Mick Jagger needs a pragmatist like Keith Richards to “turn off the tap.” (It is indeed strange to think of Keith Richards as the practical one.)
This piece reflects Mr. Gladwell’s usual M.O. And it’s a wonderful M.O. He is explicitly SHOWING instead of TELLING. A lesser writer (such as myself) would simply say, “people with great imagination must involve themselves with folks who can help restrict their creativity and channel it into something productive.” Instead, Mr. Gladwell wraps the lesson in a fascinating story from the past. (I love learning about early computing.) In his books and articles, Mr. Gladwell certainly does offer many practical lessons and frameworks through which we can better understand the world, but he never allows the lesson to get in the way of his stories. Even if it is explicit, the “moral” of your story should be implicit in the work. Mr. Gladwell has such a wide readership because he weaves together interesting stories that are meaningful. He doesn’t simply point his rhetorical finger at you and tell you what to believe.
Another thing that I’ve noticed about Mr. Gladwell’s work is that he does very little “throat clearing.” Instead of starting out with a paragraph of preamble, the writer gets right to work:
In late 1979, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur paid a visit to a research center in Silicon Valley called Xerox PARC. He was the co-founder of a small computer startup down the road, in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.
Mr. Gladwell’s clear sentences reveal the joy he takes in telling the story and in sharing information with others. I suppose it’s hard to quantify, but it always seems to me as though the gentleman is gleeful in sharing knowledge with his reader. Many of the sentences are short and descriptive, but Mr. Gladwell flexes his poetic muscles at times:
One PARC scientist recalls Jobs as “rambunctious”—a fresh-cheeked, caffeinated version of today’s austere digital emperor.
This is the legend of Xerox PARC. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance.
He had brought a big plastic bag full of the artifacts of that moment: diagrams scribbled on lined paper, dozens of differently sized plastic mouse shells, a spool of guitar wire, a tiny set of wheels from a toy train set, and the metal lid from a jar of Ralph’s preserves.
The above sentence particularly proves my point. Mr. Gladwell’s prose is highly utilitarian, but when he diverges from his pattern, there’s a good reason. A lesser writer would have included far less description of the “artifacts.” Every choice you make in your work–your diction, your structure–should be made in the service of the whole. Mr. Gladwell’s goal (at least one of them) was to impart his lesson about the proper care of creative minds. It was therefore a felicitous choice to make his sentences utilitarian and to very quickly lay the foundations of the stories that would illuminate his point.
What Should We Steal?
- Prioritize storytelling over moralizing. Getting a message out there is important; it’s why many of us become writers in the first place. Attracting and maintaining the attention of the reader is just as important, if not more so.
- Favor clarity of sentences over poeticism. This idea is an especially good one for journalists and nonfiction writers.
2011, Best American Essays 2012, Diction, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker