Tag: Tin House

Hey, Why’d You Do That, Ravi Mangla?

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.

Ravi Mangla is a very successful gent.  In addition to his Outpost19 book, Understudies, Mr. Mangla has placed his work in some very cool journals, including Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction and Wigleaf.  He’s also written for BULL Men’s Fiction, a personal favorite of mine.

Now, we could be overwhelmingly jealous of Mr. Mangla, but jealousy is an emotion suitable only for country songs.  It would be far more profitable for us to enjoy his work and to try and learn from what he does well.  You may wish to share a nine-hour phone call with him in which you ask only one question and expect him to answer.  But if Mr. Mangla offered such a service, he would have no time to write!  Instead, Mr. Mangla has been gracious enough to offer his insight into some of the small decisions he made in “Feats of Strength,” a short short he published in Tin House‘s Open Bar blog.

1) “Feats of Strength” features two lines of dialogue.  One happens in present tense–the strongman commits to buying the car–and one happens in the past: Natalie wonders how she and her husband could have been so negligent as to purchase a defective baby crib.

Why did you put the spoken lines into italics instead of using the good, old-fashioned quotation marks?  How come you did the same thing for both lines of dialogue, seeing as how one took place in the past and the other took place in the present?

RM: Dialogue is a bit of a spoiled brat, demanding not only distinctive markings but an entirely new paragraph (soon it will be asking to be underlined). Aesthetically, I don’t find the appearance of quotation marks particularly pleasing. Whenever possible I use plain text or italics. Only if the clarity is compromised will I roll out the quotes.

2) About 55% into the story, you have the first person narrator tell us the name of his child:

“–his name is Dev, by the way–“

Why didn’t you just write, “my son, Dev” instead?  The clause that names Dev breaks up a sentence and also seems like more obvious and brash narration than the rest of the piece.   Why’d you do it that way?

RM: I hoped it would lend some naturalism to the piece. The omission of the child’s name until late in the story suggests a fallibility on the part of the narrator. In a piece like this, with a contrivance like a strongman at its center, I have to work twice as hard to keep the reader from seeing the strings. Sometimes a small disruption, a note of dissonance, can disarm the reader and help them to buy into the narrative.

3) The strongman decides to bring his new car home in an unorthodox manner.  Instead of just driving it home, he gets some exercise by pulling it there instead.  You tell the reader:

“With a tow hook, he attaches a thick rope to the underside of the front bumper.”

The sentence seems to be pretty simple and declarative.  Why did you put the clause with the tow hook at the beginning of the sentence?  Why not just write,

“He attaches a thick rope to the underside of the front bumper with a tow hook.”

RM: I chose that phrasing solely for the sake of sentence variation. The previous sentence started with he, and I was hesitant to replicate it. I don’t want the sentences to become too predictable or monotonous.

4) In the final paragraph, the family waves goodbye to the now-inconvenient automobile.  You write:

“The strongman reaches a bend in the road, disappears behind a cluster of trees.”

Why’d you remove the conjunction (I’m guessing you would choose “and”) and plop in that comma?
RM: Often I’ll exclude a conjunction between clauses for rhythm. It sounds jazzier to me (but perhaps not to every reader). It’s a habit I picked up from reading Sam Lipsyte. I’m a huge admirer of his language craft. His sentences have such a unique cadence.

[Editor’s Note: Mr. Mangla makes a good point.  If you’re not familiar with Sam Lipsyte’s work, why not check out this New Yorker story he wrote.  Or one of his books?  You get the drift.]

5) The story is bookended with appearances from “several women in the neighborhood” who sit in their yards and watch the scene.  You don’t mention them elsewhere in the story and they don’t affect the narrative directly.
Space is at a premium in a short short.  This story is 671 words long.  Why did you devote 27 words–slightly more than 4% of the text!–to the women?  What, in your mind, is their function?

RM: They exist to underscore the strangeness of the scene. If there was a strongman lifting a car in my neighborhood, I know I’d be standing around watching. I think they also help to open up the world of the story, so the scene isn’t happening in a vacuum.

 

 

ravimangla

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19, 2013).   His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short FictionThe Collagist, Gigantic, The Rumpus, Wigleaf, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.  Follow him on Twitter: @ravi_mangla.

What Can We Steal From Charles Baxter’s “Bravery”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Bravery,” short story
Author: Charles Baxter
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Winter 2012 issue of Tin House and was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2013.

Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Baxter gave to BookslutHere is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Mr. Baxter is the author of Burning Down the House, a fantastic book about writing craft.  (Well, Graywolf only publishes fantastic books.)  Mr. Baxter discusses the book in this interview with The Atlantic.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: White Space

Discussion:
This is, in a way, the story of Susan’s coming of age.  We meet the young woman as a teenager who, unlike her friends, is attracted to men who are, above all, kind.  Susan affirms her interest in college and finally meets Elijah, a pediatrician who devotes his time to caring for others.  Before long, the two are married and on honeymoon in Prague.  On one eventful day, the pair walks through a chapel whose walls are filled with carved babies.  An omen?  Then the pair are verbally accosted by a woman who shouts at them in angry Czech.  An omen?  Then Susan is grazed by a tram.  An omen?  These must have been omens, as Susan immediately finds herself pregnant.  The last scene of the story finds Elijah feeding the baby.  Susan insists he stop, whereupon Elijah goes on a walk that results in a thematically relevant experience.

There are a lot of eternal struggles for those who take up the challenge of storytelling.  One of them is how to use white space and their asterisky cousin: the section break.  When should we use white space?  Unfortunately, there’s no absolute right answer.  Like any other choice, white space creates an effect and it’s our job to decide if we’re creating the proper effect.  Mr. Baxter uses white space in “Bravery” for many of the common reasons:

  • To jump ahead in time.
  • To emphasize a single image or experience. (Susan’s tree dream.)
  • To afford him the chance to get in a cool end-of-section “punch.”
  • To allow that “punch” to land and to reverberate in the reader’s mind.
  • To control how fast the reader reads the story and the path of his or her eyes.

Mr. Baxter uses two asterisk section breaks in the story:

  1. After Susan and Elijah have met and Susan reflects upon his kindness.
  2. After the significant day in Prague; Susan–though she is unaware–is about to be pregnant, and her dream confirms much of what she believes about her “destiny.”

If you’re anything like me, you are wondering why Mr. Baxter put the section breaks where he did.  The first section break seems to have the following effect:

  • Mr. Baxter spends the first few pages running through a wide swath of Susan’s life.  The asterisk lets us know that the narrator is going to slow down and that the next few pages will zoom in on a very brief period of time.
  • Mr. Baxter seems to be whispering, “Okay, friend.  I’m done shooting tons of exposition at you!  Now that you know the basics, let’s go deeper into Susan’s thoughts and experiences!”
  • The transition itself mirrors the journey being taken by the characters.  Susan and Elijah are on a plane.  This is down time.  The couple left terra firma in one place and their lives resume in another.  The story functions the same way.  (The asterisk is an airplane in a way.)

The second section break functions thus:

  • Mr. Baxter marks Susan’s transition from childlessness to parenthood.
  • Mr. Baxter zooms ahead in time from one significant scene to another.
  • Mr. Baxter switches between abstract poeticism and efficient exposition.  (“They named their son Raphael…”)

So how should we use white space and section breaks?  Sigh…there’s no easy answer.  We just need to follow Mr. Baxter’s lead and make sure that our choices have the desired effect in our readers.

Another concept with which we always wrestle is the personality of our narrators.  “Bravery” has a pretty straightforward third person limited to Susan’s perspective.  There’s nothing wrong with the narrator; it’s your tried-and-true reporter.  I did find significance in a sentence that arrives a few pages into the story:

He handed her a monogrammed handkerchief that he had pulled out of some pocket or other, and the first letter on it was E, so he probably was an Elijah, after all.  A monogrammed handkerchief!  Maybe he had money.  “Here,” he said.  “Go ahead.  Sop it up.”

The bolded sentence is significant to me because it sounded as though the narrator was speaking in a different register.  The sentiment seems to suggest a lot about Susan because it’s buried in the middle of “normal” stuff.  Think of it this way.  Let’s say you ask your significant other how his or her day was and you hear the following:

“Eh, just a normal day.  I went to the post office, then I picked up some dog food.  I was a couple minutes late to work, but it was okay.  I had leftovers for lunch.  I ran into my celebrity crush and we went on a long walk alone in the woods.  I forgot to get gas on the way home, so I have to do that tomorrow morning.  That’s about it.”

I’ll bet I know which part of that list you’ll ask more about!  The extraordinary (in this case suspicious) sentence stood out among the rest.  “Maybe he had money” stood out for me because it seemed different from the narrator’s other thoughts and shaped how I understood Susan to some small extent.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ white space and section breaks to create the desired effect in your reader.  Most readers aren’t going to mark up your stories with a pen and wonder why you did what you did.  They are going to absorb these breaks subconsciously.
  • Spice up your narrator as carefully as a chef spices a dish.  If your narrator is that traditional laid back third person limited, you probably shouldn’t jazz things up TOO much.  But a little bit of jazz?  That can make your story pop.

What Can We Steal From Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Beautiful Monsters,” short story
Author: Eric Puchner
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story first appeared in Issue 50 of Tin House.  The story subsequently appeared in the 2012 editions Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Bonuses: Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  (I love that she brought Asimov, Ellison and Heinlein into the discussion.)  Here is an interview Mr. Puchner did with The RumpusHere is a very good GQ piece Mr. Puchner wrote about his father.  (I even remember reading it in the magazine.  Good for me!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: World Creation

Discussion:
Imagine a world without adults.  A boy and a girl, two Perennials who will never grow up, have made a home together.  Inciting incident: A man, an honest-to-goodness man, shows up outside the kids’ home.  The authorities apprehend these beautiful monsters, these Senescents, but the boy and girl take the man in.  The ticking clock in the story is the man’s injury; gangrene (or something like it) is turning his leg into a festering mess.  The boy and girl have differing attitudes toward the man; the former seems to enjoy having some kind of father (at first), and the girl seems very confused by the attention.  The man teaches the children how to play like, well, real children and shares his memories with the boy and girl.  Sadly, all good things must end.  The boy somewhat changes his opinion of the stand-in father and infection lays the man low as sirens approach.  The last paragraph takes an appropriate turn into the abstract.

Anyone who reads the story will likely notice the speed and deceptive ease with which Mr. Puchner establishes the world of the story.  Readers are willing to follow a writer anywhere, so long as they are guided well and enough.  Look how Mr. Puchner lays in the clues immediately.

  • The character is called “the boy” repeatedly.  No name.  His sister is referred to by title and by pronoun.  Not only can we gather that the boy is a main character (you can’t have twenty characters called “the boy”), but the generic names create a kind of discomfort
  • In the fourth sentence: “The boy has never seen a grown man in real life, only in books…” Mr. Puchner makes his conceit a little clearer.  No grownups in this world.  (Well, not out and about.)
  • The man is described in the title and the first paragraph as a monster.  He is “bearded and tall as a shadow” with hands that are “huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs.”  The reader understands what a strange experience this is for the children.
  • Early dialogue: “He must have wandered away from the woods.”  Okay, so the grownups exist outside of mainstream society.

A writer must decide which mysteries he or she will maintain.  And you can’t have too many in your work or your reader will be confused.

I love stories that contain ticking time bombs of some sort.  A bad guy or bad girl breaks into a bank and gives the police an hour to give him or her what she wants.  Something is going to happen after an hour.  There’s a great Dragnet episode in which a bad guy has put a bomb in a school that will detonate at a specific time; Friday and Gannon MUST GET THE LOCATION.  Ticking time bombs, whether literal or not, imbue a story with inherent drama.  The reader has an idea of what might happen, but has no idea about how the specifics will play out.  In “Beautiful Monsters,” the gangrenous leg is getting worse and worse.  The reader is left to wonder: is the man going to die?  Is the man going to try and get help at the hospital?  Will the boy saw the man’s leg off?  We don’t know for sure, but SOMETHING is going to happen.  A ticking time bomb can also reinforce the fact that the writer is in control and knows what he or she is doing.

What Should We Steal?

  • Establish the strangeness of your unique world clearly and early.  One or two mysteries are fine; too many will confuse your reader.
  • Give your story a countdown.  A pregnant woman is going to have that baby nine months or so after conception.  (Hopefully!)  That story has a discernible end, complete with inherent drama.

What Can We Steal From Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Volcano,” short story
Author: Lawrence Osborne
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story premiered in Issue 47 (Spring 2011) of Tin House, one of the best journals around.  “Volcano” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bonuses: Karen Carlson shares her thoughts on the story; I love that she both appreciates and dislikes the story.  That’s the mark of complicated criticism!  Charles E. May, as always, has some important ideas about the story.  Here is the NYT review of Mr. Osborne’s latest book, The Forgiven.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Use of Dreams

Discussion:
Martha Fink, a forty-six-year-old attorney, is going through a rough time in her life.  She divorced her cheating husband six months ago and is still working through her understandable anger and confusion.  She packs up and heads off to Hawaii on her own.  As luck would have it, Martha books a room at a resort, “run by two gay dancers” that is “next to an active volcano.”  Martha doesn’t much like the resort’s regular programming; the people aren’t quite her style and she doesn’t like the lucid dreaming seminar she signed up for.  The Dream Express group is intended to allow her to remember and change her dreams.  She’s given drugs and a set of magic goggles to help her in that respect.  They don’t exactly work.  Martha decides to ditch the regular programming and rides her bike around the beautiful island.  She finds a hotel and a hotel bar that is tucked away in a remote location.  There’s a man at the bar, a retired geologist, who appreciates her as a woman–something that has been a challenge for her because of the whole husband thing.  After having one drink (and introducing herself as “Martha Prickhater”), she heads out on a bike ride.  Now it’s too late for her to go back to her resort.  She returns to the hotel/bar and has drinks with the geologist and decides to take a room in the hotel.  After going into her room and closing the door, Martha changes her mind and finds the geologist.  They have sex in the dark.  In the last paragraph, we get a carefully detailed description of the act and Martha’s real-time thoughts about it.  Dreams and the ability to control dreams play a big role.

What sets this story apart?  It’s a stellar example of the third person limited point of view.  Mr. Osborne offers us deep access to Martha’s thought and this access is crucial to the ending of the story.  The reader may have been jarred had Mr. Osborne started out with a wider third person before zooming in on Martha’s consciousness.  This is Martha’s story, so the author takes her hand and remains with her throughout.  This is also fitting because of the themes of solitude and disconnection from society.  Preventing the reader from accessing the thoughts of others allows him or her to understand Martha’s point of view.  She’s in her own head all the time and we share the experience with her.

Choosing the right point of view can be problematic.  I’m thinking of one of my current story ideas and I’m not sure which way to go.  Perhaps the solution can be found in thinking of the ending of the story and working backwards.  Mr. Osborne’s ending requires a blending of firmly grasping reality and slipping slightly into dream consciousness.  In the first person, this may be difficult because a first-person narrator could not offer objective commentary.  In the second person, the narrator would have to contend with the consciousness of the “you” and that of the reader.  The third-person limited is just right because it allows Mr. Osborne the best of both worlds: he can tell you what is really happening and tell you what is happening in Martha’s head.

Mr. Osborne also offers a master class in how to write dreams.  We’ve all been warned to avoid the cliche it-was-all-a-dream ending.  Why?  Because it’s a cheat.  Mr. Osborne warps reality in a meaningful manner.  Martha has dreams in the first half of the story and these do indeed illuminate her psychology for the reader.  Martha is forced to confront her trouble relating to others (a central character facet that leads to the conclusion).  The dreams are also not terribly abstract.  Mr. Osborne isn’t putting you into the role of a psychiatrist by offering some way-out-there descriptions of things.  A lesser writer (such as myself) would make the dreams so strange that the reader would be forced to take out pad and pencil and figure out what is going on.  Further, Mr. Osborne us careful to let us know when Martha is dreaming and when she is not.  Some writers would not be as vigilant in using the key words and phrases: “began to dream,” “awoke,” “got up,” “wrote down her dream straightaway.”

Mr. Osborne is also very careful to establish the “rules” of the lucid dreaming workshop.  When Martha reaches for the wall in the end of the story, it means something to us.  Why?  Because the lucid dreaming expert person told us that rubbing a rough surface will change the dream immediately, and then Mr. Osborne has Martha do just that during one of her less-than-satisfying dreams in the resort.  The reader will follow you wherever you want to go, but you need to establish the specific rules of the world you’re creating.  Mr. Osborne follows his own rules, which is important when he gets to the ending of the story.  He gets a TINY bit abstract and that’s okay.  It’s the end of the story and Martha is undergoing a…very important experience.  The reader understands the significance of rubbing a rough surface, so it means an awful lot.

What Should We Steal?

  • Choose your point of view by working backwards.  If you’re not sure which POV to use, consider which would facilitate the ending you have in mind.
  • Employ dreams as a tool, not a story element unto themselves.  If you’re listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” okay, fine; the “dream” is the point.  In a narrative, the dream must simply be another facet of the world and characters you create.
  • Establish the unique rules of your world very quickly and adhere to them.  Think of something like Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (I do this all the time.)  Does it make sense that the Enterprise can go faster than the speed of light?  Sure.  The writers established the “how” of the warp drive and adhere to the rules of the technology very closely.

What Can We Steal from Rebecca Barry’s “How to Save a Wounded Bird”?

Title of Work and its Form: “How to Save a Wounded Bird,” short story
Author: Rebecca Barry
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in Issue 16 of Tin House, a top-notch journal.  The story was later included in Later, at the Bar, Ms. Barry’s excellent “novel in stories.”

Bonuses:  Here is Ms. Barry’s author page at Simon & Schuster.  Here‘s a cool interview Ms. Barry gave to the New York Times‘ Arts Beat.  Here‘s what the folks at The Biblio Blogazine thought of Later, at the Bar.  (Spoiler alert: they loved it.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
Elizabeth Teeter is having a rough go of it.  Her husband recently left her for a man.  Her cat keeps plucking baby birds from their nests.  Her students at the community college are uninspired and apathetic.  Right before a Monday class, Elizabeth finds a baby bird in her cat’s mouth and arranges to take it to a wildlife center right after she teaches.  So her students didn’t do the reading.  At least she got to teach a class with a baby bird on her desk.  Elizabeth makes a deal with the class: they’ll all get out early if someone will give her a ride to the wildlife center.  A young man named Trevor agrees.  The car ride is a little uncomfortable; Elizabeth snaps a little bit, but her loneliness overtakes her.  She doesn’t confess her desire, but she wants to share some (relatively) pure intimacy with the young man.  Instead, Trevor simply continues their errand of mercy.

Many writers great have instincts, but they don’t take their ideas far enough.  How many of us have had a significant other stolen away by a same-sex interloper?  It certainly happens, but it happens infrequently enough that folks might still be attracted to your story because of the idea alone.  A cool idea is seldom enough to make a great story.  Ms. Barry’s story is so cool (in part) because the same-sex affair is simply a part of the situation, a mere facet of Elizabeth’s life.

When you have “crazy” things happen in a story that aren’t quite tethered to plot and character, you’re dealing with melodrama.  That’s not necessarily bad; Trapped in the Closet is so gloriously awesome in part because of its increasingly outlandish and unrealistic plot points.  Compare “How to Save a Wounded Bird” to the first few chapters of Trapped in the Closet.  R. Kelly expects to keep an audience and propel a story along by simply adding a same-sex affair.  We never get a deeper understanding of any of the characters who are involved.  Ms. Barry’s story instead presents a portrait of a woman working through her sadness.  It’s okay to make use of extreme plot points, but they should be a means, not an end.

One of the reasons that Elizabeth is so sad is that everything is seemingly crashing down on her at once.  She’s finding it difficult to see anything but things that reinforce her loneliness and sadness.  Ms. Barry, however, is wise enough to avoid this problem in her story.  There are moments of great humor in an otherwise sad piece.  Elizabeth’s jerky neighbor calls her cat fat and advises her to put a muzzle on the feline.  This annoys Elizabeth, who replies, “If you put a diaper on your dog, he wouldn’t shit in our yard.”  The narrator shrewdly allows Elizabeth to correct herself: “My yard.” There’s a moment of laugh-out-loud humor that makes the story engaging.

There’s another great moment in which Ms. Barry subverts the overall tone of sadness.  Elizabeth is teaching and is annoyed that her students didn’t do the reading she had assigned:

Her students were sitting at their desks, dozing or talking on their cell phones.  Elizabeth shut the door and wrote a pop quiz on the board.

“If you miss one question on this one,” she said, “you will automatically fail.”

“Peep!  Peep!  Peep!” said the bird.

Elizabeth may have trouble agreeing with the idea, but there are good things happening to her.  There is humor to be found in her situation and people around her are still falling in love, even if she’s dealing with the negative effects of trusting someone else.  “How to Save a Wounded Bird” is more meaningful and more life-affirming because Ms. Barry looks at the world through the writer’s wide-angle lens, not Elizabeth’s blinders.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow extreme plot points to affect your characters, not the other way around.  You shouldn’t think of your protagonist as “some priest who leaves the clergy for a woman who treated him like crap in high school and still does and who is abused by her friends and becomes addicted to crack and must do community service at a dog pound.”  You should think of your characters as people and illustrate the way plot points change their lives.
  • Leaven the primary tone of your story with bits of contrasting tone.  Not only do your readers need a change of pace at times, but alternating tone also lends verisimilitude to your work.

What Can We Steal From Steve Almond’s “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” short story
Author: Steve Almond
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Issue 40 of the excellent journal Tin House and was subsequently chosen by Richard Russo for The Best American Short Stories 2010.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Multimedia

Discussion:
If you’re new to literary pursuits, you may not have experienced the utterly strange kind of pleasure that I derived from this story.  I reviewed Issue 40 of Tin House for NewPages and loved Mr. Almond’s story a LOT.  Months and months later, I picked up the 2010 Best American and thought the first story seemed pretty familiar…  The book begins with that story I loved from Tin House!  Did I have anything at all to do with Mr. Almond’s story or the honors it received?  Of course not.  But I did feel that strange pleasure; I read a story I knew was great and important people subsequently agreed with me.  (It’s like when you see a minor league ballplayer you think is great and the guy goes on to a superstar career in the bigs.)

“Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched” is a philosophical fight between Dr. Raymond Oss, a psychoanalyst, and Gary “Card” Sharpe, “enfant terrible of the World Poker Tour.”  Dr. Oss doesn’t tell his new patient that he has a somewhat unhealthy level of interest in poker and a bit too much of the love of gambling that rules Sharpe’s life.  Sharpe has many problems and doesn’t deal with them in a healthy way; he doesn’t want to change.  He loves his life and the excitement he feels from using his intellect and intuition to win money from people.  Their doctor/patient relationship ends with some acrimony.  In the climactic scene, Dr. Oss has relapsed and is again playing poker at Artichoke Joe’s when Sharpe (a superstar in the minds of the bushers at the table) strolls in and sees the Good Doctor.  What happens next?  As they said on Reading Rainbow: “read the book!”  (Dum dum dum dum!)

There’s so much we can steal from the story.  The first thing we should steal was clear to me when I read the story in Tin House, a journal that is particularly attractive and puts a lot of energy into its graphic design.  It can be very difficult to describe a card game.  Or a baseball game.  Or a soccer match.  Well, it’s not that hard to describe a soccer match.  Here’s my extremely American-sounding description of the most recent World Cup final:

The guy kicked it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds.  So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. Time ran out, but the referee added eight more minutes just because.  So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. Then one of the teams celebrated.

Mr. Almond makes it easy to understand the climactic hand of poker that Dr. Oss and Sharpe play at the end of the story.  How?  He inserted simple graphics into the story, like so:

almond donkeyA written description would likely be less effective.  (Especially if I write it.)

Dr. Oss was dealt the ace of spades and the king of hearts.

There are a number of steps in a hand of hold ‘em…Mr. Almond presents the information in a clear way that just so happens to avoid words.

What else should we steal from Mr. Almond?  He populated his story with a protagonist and an antagonist.  Dr. Oss wants to help Sharpe to attain mental health and to beat Sharpe in a hand of poker.  You better bet that Sharpe tosses down a whole bunch of obstacles to prevent Dr. Oss from achieving those goals.

What Should We Steal?

  • Capitalize upon the advantages of visual media when possible.  Yes, yes.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but you can’t just print out five pictures and staple them together and send them to Tin House.  You can, however, make use of the benefits of visual media when possible.  Instead of describing a bunch of playing cards, for example, you can include images.  There’s an added benefit; folks who play poker will remain in your narrative that much more because they’re seeing the cards in a form to which they’re already accustomed.
  • Equip a story with a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist.  Your main character should have very clear desires and there should be someone who is always throwing obstacles in the poor guy’s way.  Think of a Bond movie.  Bond wants to disable a communications satellite and the bad guy wants to keep using the satellite…and to kill Bond, of course.

What Can We Steal From Ron Rash’s “The Ascent”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Ascent,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Ascent” first appeared in the Issue 39 of the journal Tin House (Spring 2009).  The story was subsequently chosen for the 2010 issue of The Best American Short Stories.  You can also read the story in Burning Bright, a 2011 collection of stories written by Mr. Rash.  Cool.  Here’s an interview with Mr. Rash!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Voice

Discussion:
Jared is a normal fifth grader.  He likes a girl named Lyndee Starnes and enjoys long walks in the woods.  Jared lives within hiking distance of a crashed plane that hasn’t yet been found by the authorities.  Well, Jared finds the plane during one of his hikes.  He opens up the door and plucks a diamond ring from the finger of the dead woman inside the plane.  After a couple hours of fantasizing about what Lyndee will say upon receiving the ring, Jared’s parents take the ring to “see if it’s real.”  Well, Jared’s parents are drug addicts.  Jared’s dad tells him an obvious lie: the diamond ring—if you can believe it—was reported stolen by a woman, but here’s a chipped-up bicycle for Christmas, champ!  Jared knows the family needs money, so he steals more goodies from the plane.  After Mom and Dead head out for more drugs, Jared makes a third trip to the airplane as a blizzard rolls in.  The ending, which I don’t want to reveal, is beautiful and fitting.

How do you access the thoughts of a fifth grader?  I suppose many parents would tell you that it’s easier than figuring out what the heck a tenth-grader is thinking.  Mr. Rash places his third-person narrator pretty close to the consciousness of his protagonist.  Jared’s parents are always doing drugs, but it would be a mistake if Mr. Rash allowed the kid to grasp everything.  For example:

As soon as he came into the front room, Jared could tell his parents hadn’t been to bed.  The first was still going, kindling piled around the hearth.  His mother sat where she’d been last night, wearing the same clothes.  She was tearing pages out of a magazine one at a time, using scissors to make rages stars she stuck on the walls with tape.  His father sat beside her, watching intently.
The glass pipe lay on the coffee table beside four baggies, two with powder still in them.  There’d never been more than one before.

A fifth grader probably isn’t going to totally understand all of the slang names for the narcotic in question.  He will, however, know that Mom and Dad usually don’t leave so many baggies out.  Jared doesn’t know EXACTLY what is wrong with his Mom, but he does grasp the effects of the powder.

The simplicity of most of the sentences also reflects the fifth-grade understanding of Mr. Rash’s narrator.  Many of them are short and declarative.  Mr. Rash, however, certainly knows his way around a poetic turn of phrase.  The last sentence of the story is five lines long and a poem unto itself.  The contrast is somewhat shocking to the reader; Mr. Rash has shared seven or eight pages of one kind of sentences with the reader and then presents them with one that is completely different.

What Should We Steal?

  • Match your sentences to your character’s level of understanding.  The average kid simply can’t understand the world in as complicated manner as the average adult.  The narrator must, therefore, report in a way that does seem natural for a child, allowing the reader to draw conclusions.
  • Employ contrast to maximize the effect of an idea.  I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty shocked if James Taylor grabbed a baseball bat and bashed out my windshield if I cut him off in a parking lot.  Why?  His public persona and his music seem so calm and laid-back.