The last time I wrote about Amy Bloom, I pointed out that I had the pleasure of participating in a small-group workshop that she led when I was at Ohio State. Ms. Bloom was as fascinating as her work and brought a refreshing point of view to my grad school experience.
But now I am a little upset at her. There I was, all ready to work on the first draft of my next YA novel. My fountain pen (in this case, a Parker 21) was uncapped and ready to go. The journal in which I’ve been pounding out my draft was open to where I had left off the previous day. Then I made the fateful mistake of deciding to read the first few pages of Away, Ms. Bloom’s 2007 novel. As you may have guessed, I didn’t put the book aside after the first few pages. Ms. Bloom stole two and a half hours of writing time from me.
I’ll never get that time back, so the only thing I can do is figure out how Ms. Bloom convinced me to ignore my poor protagonist as he begged me to continue his tale.
Away is a sad and beautiful story about Lillian Leyb, a young woman who has escaped a Russian pogrom. Her family was not as lucky. She soon set sail for New York City, where she becomes the thin-pointed corner in an acute love triangle with an impresario in the Yiddish theater and his actor son. Upon hearing that her daughter Sophie may not be dead after all, Lillian sets off to find the little girl. Instead of taking the expensive trip over the Atlantic, Lillian decides to try to traverse North America to reach Russia via the Bering Strait. I don’t want to ruin any of the plot beyond that point…just read the book. You can buy it at your local indie bookstore or online. Ron Charles of the Washington Post liked the book as much as I did. Louisa Thomas of the New York Times Book Review is also a fan.
One of the facets of Away that I most admired was the way that Ms. Bloom was able to pack a vast journey worthy of Odysseus into only 240 pages. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo loved to tell massive stories, but had trouble writing books under “brick” length. (I don’t mean to say that long books are a bad thing, of course; such tomes, I’m guessing, are just a harder sell in these times of Twitter.) Ms. Bloom recounts nearly two years of Lillian’s life in detail, but also manages to create compelling supporting characters, including an African-American prostitute, telegraph operators, inmates at a Canadian women’s reformatory and figures in the early twentieth-century Yiddish theater. How did she turn such a difficult trick?
Ms. Bloom catapulted her lonely character through a series of pairs and small groups. In a way, the book is a series of short stories centered upon Lillian’s interactions with an important character or two. For example, we see:
Lillian and the relatives and friends who give her a home after she arrives in New York.
Lillian and Reuben and Meyer Burstein, father/son theater team who use her in different ways.
Lillian and Gumdrop, a prostitute in Seattle.
Ms. Bloom certainly gives Reuben and Meyer and Gumdrop their own moments in the sun and packs in full backstories for the characters, but these passages are brief and detract little focus from Lillian, the star of the novel. Why does this technique work in so splendid a manner? I believe it’s because the protagonist’s series of close relationships drive the plot perhaps more than the actual plot. In the hands of a lesser writer like me, the story would have been more about the things that Lillian did to fulfill her goal and the things that happened to her along the way. That’s okay…but Ms. Bloom’s use of relationship is much more powerful than simple plot points.
Think of it this way. Let’s pretend that Away followed a “plot point” structure in which the events are more important than any of the characters. (You know, like in a Transformers film.)
Lillian arrives in New York.
Lillian gets a job in the costuming department of a theater.
Lillian gets a job as the mistress of an impresario and his son.
Lillian finds out her daughter is alive.
Lillian heads cross-country to find her.
Okay…okay…that’s fine, but Ms. Bloom is intelligent and knowing enough to think of the book differently:
Lillian struggles to establish herself in America and to deal with the loss of her family.
Lillian struggles through her emotional paralysis in the midst of her involvement in a very strange love triangle.
Lillian struggles to decide what to do after the revelation that her daughter may be alive, even though the source may be unreliable.
Lillian struggles with solitude (and sleeping in dark and confined spaces) to get cross-country in her effort to find her daughter.
See how much more powerful the story is when you think of it as a series of struggles the protagonist must overcome? Think about this principle the next time you outline a work.
Now, I do have a little bit of will power. I could have stopped reading and gotten back to writing my YA novel. But then Ms. Bloom just HAD to go and do something else that was really smart and allowed her to tell an epic story in a novel that one can read in a single sitting.
Think back to the Transformers movies. Do you actually care about what happens to any of the characters? Nah. You’re not supposed to care. In a novel like Les Miserables, Victor Hugo manages to make you care very deeply about even the most minor of characters. Every one of them has unique personalities; Hugo develops them such that you can build psychological profiles of just about everyone, including the Friends of the ABC. Shoot, I first read that novel fifteen years ago and I still think about Azelma Thenardier from time to time. (And most people don’t even know who she is because she’s not in the musical.)
Like I said, Hugo had hundreds of pages over which to unspool his narrative. Ms. Bloom chose not to avail herself of that luxury and was therefore charged with finding other ways to increase the potency and epic nature of the work. Instead of describing the fates of each character in traditional narrative, Ms. Bloom weaves a description of what will happen to them (usually) in the last bit of dramatic present in which they participate.
Check out this excerpt from page 72. Reuben, the rich Yiddish theater impresario, has just denied Lillian the (relatively) small bit of money that will get her across the Atlantic and that much closer to Sophia:
Reuben walks carelessly through the Goldfadn costume room when he gets back. He compliments Miss Morris. He picks up a blue button beside Lillian’s sewing machine as if he is tidying up, and he flirts with the plump, pretty girl who always sat behind Lillian. It has not occurred to Lillian or Reuben what her leaving will do to him, that he will lose most of his vision within a year and when he cannot bear to make his way with a cane and a helper, he will retreat to the house in Brooklyn, eat without appetite through the winter, and die in the spring, lying beside Esther [his wife] in their big four-poster bed.
See how gracefully the present and future are interwoven? If only real life were that simple and efficient. This manifestation of extreme narrative control cuts down on the book’s page count, but also keeps the reader and the narrative chugging along, just like the train that brought Lillian from New York to Seattle.
Yes, it will take me that much longer to finish my YA book because I spent time reading instead. So I’m a little cross that Ms. Bloom and Away stole precious writing time from me, but I’ll get over it, as reading the book helped me improve my own writing.
Friends, David Chase’s HBO program The Sopranos is widely hailed as one of the shows that ushered in the latest “golden age” of television. James Gandolfini portrayed Tony Soprano, a New Jersey man who spent his time caring for his family and his waste management business. Oh yeah…he was also a big-time player in the Jersey mob.
The Sopranos ran from 1999 to 2007 and has influenced countless dramas that followed. (Breaking Bad, in particular.) The final episode was highly anticipated and Mr. Chase did his duty, giving the story an ending that viewers wouldn’t soon forget:
Many were confused by the abrupt cut to black. Others figured there was a problem with their cable connection. The reaction bummed me out a little; I loved that Mr. Chase ended the show on his own terms and that he made an artistic choice.
Didn’t Mr. Chase experience every writer’s dream? Millions of people were hanging on his every word and have since spent the better part of a decade deciding what the piece means to them. “Masterofsopranos” offered my favorite analysis. Jamie Andrew produced a thoughtful explanation for Den of Geek!
Well, Mr. Chase offered some after-the-fact clarification with regard to Tony’s true fate. I’ve linked an article, but you know what? It doesn’t matter what Mr. Chase thinks. He was kind enough to give us the work and it now belongs to each viewer.
Now, I know that Twitter isn’t really good for much. It is, however, a means of communication and must have some intrinsic value. For instance, the great Joyce Carol Oates offered some ideas regarding the Sopranos finale that we should bear in mind:
Who cares what David Chase thinks happened at the end of "Sopranos"? Did Milton understand "Paradise Lost"? #IntentionalFallacy
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 27, 2014
Intentional Fallacy: what the writer intends is not invariably what the writer can succeed in writing. Work of art must stand alone.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 27, 2014
In matter of "Sopranos" ending, it is disingenuous of the writer to say that his intended ending is the aesthetically plausible ending.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 27, 2014
Many ways of suggesting that Tony Soprano does not die but lives w/ the expectation of a violent death-ending of "Sopranos" not this.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 27, 2014
Ms. Oates retweeted this nugget of timeless wisdom:
@JoyceCarolOates Believe the tale not the teller.
— Scott Pryor (@profpryor) August 27, 2014
Ending of "Sopranos" replicates extinction of consciousness-brain-death of Tony Soprano. Ideal ending & long-awaited. Time has moved on.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 27, 2014
Either stories are totally contrived & (more or less) worthless-or they possess their own, interior integrity which author can't violate.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 27, 2014
Writing is a double-edged sword. Writers get the pleasure of sharing creations with readers…then the writer must accept that each reader invariably makes that creation their own. We thank Mr. Chase for giving us Tony and Paulie and Christopher and Carmela and Adriana (RIP), but his act of giving also means that they now belong to us.
Did Tony get shot? Your theory is worth just as much as the impulse that guided Mr. Chase during his long hours at the keyboard.
Title of Work and its Form: “Bible,” short story Author: Tobias Wolff Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in The Atlantic‘s 2007 fiction issue. As of this writing, you can find “Bible” on the magazine’s web site. (Feel free to say thank you to those fine folks!) The piece was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2008 by Salman Rushdie. Ann Graham was nice enough to compare a revised version of “Bible” to the original. Thanks, Ms. Graham!
Bonuses: Here is a great Paris Review interview with Mr. Wolff.
Want to see Mr. Wolff discuss his excellent book, Old School?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Power Imbalances
What a great story. Maureen is a schoolteacher who has spent the evening with friends at the Hundred Club. In the first two pages, we learn that Maureen’s life is not as perfect as she wishes it were; she has serious problems with her grown grown daughter, Grace. One is led to believe that these are the kinds of obstacles that could be overcome with a little mutual humility and maybe a bottle of wine, but that has not yet happened. After we feel like we know Maureen, she is carjacked by a mysterious man with an accent. He forces his way into her car and tells her to drive.
I don’t want to ruin everything in the synopsis. Just read the story. It isn’t very long and it’s available on the Atlantic web site.
I had a lot of fun re-reading this story in the Best American volume in part because it occurred to me that I remembered the story from its original public…in 2007. What in the world makes a story so great that a reader will remember it seven years later?
One big reason that the story maintained its power in my mind was the way that power shifted between Maureen and the man (Hassan’s father). Before the two meet, Maureen has high status; she’s a financially secure teacher who is taking advantage of her education. Hassan was a doctor in his home country…and now he is not.
The story is exciting because it’s a real fight between two characters that is based upon big, important issues. Why do we love Law & Order? Because we vacillate between “He or she is guilty of assault!” and “He or she is innocent of that assault!” Why is 12 Angry Men so great? It’s a big fight between twelve characters that determines a man’s innocence and future. Wolff has our attention for the same reasons: we want to know what happens and we want to know what the characters (and Mr. Wolff) are ultimately saying about the big issues in the story. (What parents will do for their children…the sadness that can result from the immigrant experience in America…when mercy should be granted…)
Okay, okay. Fine. I’ll make a chart that demonstrates that “Bible” is so great, in part, because it’s a live wire that keeps us interested:
The play Doubt is great because we are forced to empathize with both characters and we’re not spoonfed the truth. We love long tennis rallies because they’re a fight between two great players.
“Bible” derives its power from the way it takes away our certitude with respect to the characters and the story’s outcome.
Mr. Wolff makes a choice halfway through the story that he can only make because he did such a fantastic job establishing the characters and their situation. If you’ll notice, there are few dialogue tags in the scene during which Maureen and Hassan argue about the place of women in Islam, whether Hassan will be reported to Father/Mr. Crespi and whether Hassan is a decent enough student to be a doctor. The reader really doesn’t need dialogue tags because there are only two characters. We don’t need “stuff”/description of tone or action during dialogue because Mr. Wolff already brought the characters to such vivid life.
Omitting the dialogue tags is a fun choice because it allows us to read the story faster and to concentrate on the battle being waged between the two characters. In order to make use of this technique, unfortunately, you must have well-established characters who actually say interesting and powerful things. (See? You knew there would be a catch!)
What Should We Steal?
Make use of power transfers.I’m a big Detroit Tiger fan. Would I love if they won every game they played? Sure. But there wouldn’t be too much drama in that season, would there?
Omit dialogue tags and description during the meat of an argument. The reader should understand the differences of opinion between characters during your climax…why not consider releasing that dialogue uninterrupted?
Title of Work and its Form: “Man and Wife,” short story Author: Katie Chase Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Missouri Review, one of the best journals for fiction. TMR has been kind enough to post the story on their web site for free. “Man and Wife” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2008 by Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor.
Bonuses: Here is “Every Good Marriage Begins in Tears,” a story Ms. Chase published in Narrative. Here is “Babydoll and the Ring of Chastity,” originally published by Five Chapters. And here is “The Sea That Leads to All Seas,” a story originally published in Prairie Schooner.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
Hooray! Mary Ellen just got engaged to be married to Mr. Middleton, a wealthy man with a sweet moustache.
Oh no! Mary Ellen is nine-and-a-half years old.
Ms. Chase offers us a wonderfully disturbing story in which Mary Ellen is promised to Mr. Middleton. Her friend Stacie comes by to play Barbies on occasion and Mr. Middleton comes for respectable Sunday evening dinners. Mary Ellen’s mother tells the young lady some of what she’ll need to know to be a good wife. I don’t want to ruin everything. TMR has the story up for free…just go read it.
The story reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in a few ways. Don’t get me wrong; the stories are very different, but Ms. Chase is able to create a similarly delicious sense of foreboding in the piece. The story is so much “fun” that I made marginal notes that demonstrate how deeply I engaged with the story: “WTF world is this?” “Say WHAT?” “Awesomely disturbing.”
Perhaps the biggest reason Ms. Chase engages us so deeply is because she treats the world of “Man and Wife” as utterly normal. Now, every single person who reads “Man and Wife” is repulsed by the idea of preteen children being sold into marriage. Ms. Chase doesn’t allow Mary Ellen (narrating what happened eight years ago) or any of the other characters to violate the conventions of their society. Can it be tempting to remind a reader that it’s super gross for a grown man to play Barbies with his preteen fiancee? Sure. But it’s not necessary and it’s undesirable; such a scene is NOT super gross in Mary Ellen’s world.
Ms. Chase also follows Shirley Jackson’s lead by slowly layering in the “weird” stuff. In the first few pages, Mary Ellen tells us that we’re going to read the story of HOW EVERYTHING CHANGED FOR HER. Okay, normal. Then her parents say they have big news. Okay, normal. Then the parents toast the good news and there’s a little bit of ooh-child-getting-a-sip-of-alcohol stuff. Okay, normal. We know SOMETHING is up, but we’re not quite sure what it might be.
Then Ms. Chase hits us with the crazy: “He’s gone ahead and asked for your hand. And we’ve agreed to it.” This was the point at which I knew I was going on a “fun ride,” as I wrote in the margin. Ms. Chase successfully immersed me in a different world and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next because the world functioned according to rules so different from ours.
I have some cinematic examples!
The film Happiness disturbed the crap out of me, so much so that I am a little scared of Dylan Baker, even though I know Mr. Baker was simply reading words from a script. I simply don’t live in a world in which it makes sense that a father would drug his child’s friend for…unpleasant…purposes. I was immersed in the film because it was like looking through a telescope into an alternate universe.
The great Alexander Payne (with co-writer Jim Taylor) shook me from real life and dragged me into the world of Ruth Stoops in their classic film Citizen Ruth:
Ruth (Laura Dern) begins the film huffing patio sealant behind a hardware store. Then she is arrested and discovers she’s pregnant…again. The judge offers her a choice: have an abortion and go free or have the child and stay behind bars. Ruth begins bopping between soldiers on both sides of the abortion debate. While I certainly understand the political landscape and all of that, Mr. Payne immersed me in a life I don’t want to inhabit: that of a person whose only goal is to get their hands on some spray paint.
Further, Ms. Chase addresses an occasional problem of first person narration in a graceful manner. Think about it: how many times have you read a first person narrator representing a character who isn’t very smart or eloquent…but the story contains beautiful turns of phrase and features flawless craft? If you’re doing “Flowers for Algernon,” it’s really hard to pop in some Harlan Ellison/Ray Bradbury sentences. (Especially during the sections early in the story…and late.)
But gosh, Ms. Chase offers us some underline-worthy turns of phrase and powerful images:
I pushed a chair to the cupboards and climbed onto the countertop. Two glass flutes for my parents, and for myself a plastic version I’d salvaged from last New Year’s, the first time I’d been allowed, and encouraged, to stay up past midnight and seen how close the early hours of the next day were to night.
“Take a good look at that pie, Mary.”
The crust was golden brown, its edges pressed with the evenly spaced marks of a fork prong. Sweet red berries seeped through the three slits of a knife.
“It’s perfect,” she said, with her usual ferocity.
“Of course, he’ll probably let you go back soon. He’ll want you to. That’s what Mr. Middleton told us—that he admired your mind. He said he could tell you’re a very bright girl.
“I should be so lucky,” she added darkly. “Your father only saw my strength.”
Here’s the (prospective) problem: the story is being written by the seventeen-year-old narrator. A young lady who, we discover, was taken out of school at nine. Who was bright at nine, but isn’t depicted as being a huge reader. Why aren’t we jarred from the story when we read the highlights of the story?
Well, Ms. Chase is careful to point out that Mary Ellen is seventeen when writing the story. This happens in the first second paragraph. (And it’s the last sentence of the paragraph, so it stands out all the more.) Ms. Chase makes it clear that Mary Ellen doesn’t go to school, but does have a tutor that allows her to become educated while fulfilling her wifely duties. We don’t mind that Mary Ellen is such a beautiful writer because she seems very smart and interesting; we’re told Mary Ellen is an apprentice of sorts in her husband’s business and we’re sure the woman can pick up just about anything. Ms. Chase also benefits from perhaps the writer’s greatest gift: readers want to suspend disbelief…within reason.
What Should We Steal?
Leave your morality at home.Look, we’re ALL against preteens getting married. You’re preaching to the choir. Just tell us a cool story about what happens in a world in which people DO disagree with us.
Layer in the crazy like and don’t apologize. It’s your job as a storyteller to tell tales we haven’t heard before about exceptional characters. Think of your reader like the proverbial frog in the pot: turn the heat up slowly and we won’t even notice until the water is boiling.
Ensure that your narration fits your narrator. Odds are that your five-year-old narrator is not going to whip out a reference to War and Peace. Just saying.
I am writing to share my admiration for your work and, specifically, for “A Table Full of Wasps.” (We’re grateful that you’ve allowed the poem to live online at Verse Daily.) It just so happens that I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at LeMoyne College in 2007. I had just been accepted to my MFA program and was going to literary events to try and start immersing myself in what would soon be my world. I enjoyed your reading and talk a great deal and I greatly admire the poems in Bitters.
One big idea that I’ve borrowed from you is…well…I guess I knew it before. You and your book just slammed the idea home for me. In Bitters, you borrow a lot from mythology in explicit and implicit ways. You helped me realize that writers are never at a loss for material. We’ve all been there; we’re sitting at a coffee place with a steaming cup in front of us. A notebook opened and pen in hand. We tap our fingers on the table wondering what we can write about, hoping a story or a poetic image just taps us on the shoulder.
Next time we’re stuck, why don’t we just retell a story from Chaucer?
Why not write a poem whose central idea is taken from the work of Sappho?
But on to the main reason I’m writing. “A Table Full of Wasps” (also available in your book Wild Tongue) is a narrative free verse poem in which the first person narrator (who may or may not literally be Chana Bloch) sits at a table in a restaurant and bears witness to the sadness that women can feel when they are in an unhappy relationship. (As I’m sure you’ll agree, that sadness is just as powerful when the gender tables are turned.)
One of my eternal struggles in writing is to truly understand the machinations of free verse. (I’ve written about my exploration of the topic before.) What I love about the lines of “A Table Full of Wasps” is that they seem like their own individual breaths of thought. The great liberation of free verse, it seems, is that each line demands to be considered on its own merits. Meter and rhyme aren’t necessarily at the forefront, but the reader (and writer) are invited to appreciate the beauty of the words and their sounds in isolation.
What are some of my personal favorites?
he reads poetry to her each morning, soft with wit
a potbellied, disheveled, middle-aged Dionysius,
to curry favor, or as a horse, caught by a bag
Another facet of the poem that I love is that there IS meter and rhythm running through the lines. I tend to write a lot of blank verse, but I’m always experimenting because, well, it’s fun. (And experimentation is the point of being a writer, isn’t it?) There’s iambic pentameter streaking through the poem like a line of gold in a mountainside.
For example, there is tight meter in the middle of these three lines:
and a huge white carp motionless
in that lead murk. But nothing in her rises up to meet me; she is cooler than
I’ve bolded the crisp iambic line. The effect seems musical to me, like the moment in a symphony when a favorite theme is reintroduced by the composer. Maybe, as I continue building my free verse muscles, I can think about your poem to understand the many rules that do apply when we compose outside of a recognized form.
So thanks again for unintentionally being a big part of my pre-MFA months and for all of your great work. (Not to mention all of the kindness you’ve shared with the rest of the poetry community during your laurel-rich career.) And thank you for your service as Tuscon’s poet laureate! I wish more municipalities would follow your city’s lead.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
Smash writer’s block by writing your own version of a great work from the past. What if you go to a random page at Project Gutenberg and see what happens when you borrow from Beowulf or cadge from Cabell?
Ensure that your lines represent their own individual breaths of thought. Your free verse should consist of a bunch of individual one-line poems.
Enhance your work with a sprinkling of elements from other forms. Free verse can be imbued with some moments of metrical purity. Nonfiction prose can be improved with brief flights of poetic fancy.
Here is Ms. Seiferle’s page at the Poetry Foundation. Here is an interview that the Tuscon Sun conducted with Ms. Seiferle. And you know you want to hear Ms. Seiferle read her work:
I just finished Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature in a single blaze of reading and I simply had to write you to tell you how much I enjoyed the book. I bought the book from my local independent bookstore and I hope all of my cool readers follow suit.
I should be a little cross with you! =) I sat down yesterday to write the last 3000 words or so of the first draft of my own young adult novel. I figured that I would just read a little bit of Evolution and get back to my work…but your book distracted me. I didn’t resume writing until I found out what happened to Mena and how her story would end. (Don’t worry; the first draft is finished.)
Mena Reece is a very charming character; she’s a high schooler who begins the year in a tough place. All of her old friends hate her because of a letter she sent the previous year. (Read the book to find out what it said.) She’s no longer welcome in her old church and sending the letter has put her parents’ insurance agency into jeopardy. Her life is at a low point, all because she did the right thing. Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant and stellar science teacher who could make a lot more money doing…other sciency things. Instead, she teaches high school because she wants to shape the minds and hearts of the next generation. Mena is also increasingly psyched about her lab partner, a young man named Casey. The two work on a big project together and, as you might expect, grow to care about each other a great deal. There’s a cool science vs. religion showdown in the classroom and a very sad scene that occurs when Mena returns to her church. In the end, of course, Mena finds a way to improve her life and to be happy by following Polonius’s greatest advice: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
I read the first two short paragraphs of the book the night before I read the rest.
I knew today would be ugly.
When you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine.
I loved the paragraphs so much that I shared them on Facebook. Why? Because you did a great job of setting up the story and preparing the reader for his or her journey. You are extremely economical in the opening:
“I” - Okay, now the reader knows that the book is in the first person.
“today” - You’re letting us know that the book begins on A BIG DAY. A DAY UNLIKE ANY OTHER. This is good! We know we’re not going to be bored! We’re wondering what you mean by that.
“would be ugly” - Cool. Something nasty is going to happen today. Thankfully, the ugliness will only be in the book and not in reality.
“you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars” - There we go. There are HUGE STAKES for the character. People are getting sued and for LOTS of money.
“you expect to make some enemies.” - And there are HUGE STAKES for Mena as a character. Good! This story MATTERS.
“Fine.” - Oh, and the protagonist has some personality and is (eventually) a bit of a fighter. Fantastic. This will be fun.
Once I read those two paragraphs, I knew I was in good hands. (And yes, I did look back at the first bit of my own YA novel. It seems to me that the emotional stakes are clear and huge, but I’ll take a closer look once I type everything up.)
One of the reasons that I bought the book in the first place is that you set your story against the backdrop of the perpetual and extremely American conflict between science and religion. I happen to have been tangentially involved in this field; not in a big way, unfortunately. (I did have a piece in Skeptical Inquirer and that was a big thrill.) I was a little worried that the book might not be…compatible with reality. So I skimmed the acknowledgements and saw that you thanked Kenneth Miller. I felt better immediately. Dr. Miller, as you know, is a brilliant scientist who is also extremely devout in his religious belief. (Maybe things have changed in recent years, who knows? I’m sad to say that he’s not an acquaintance of mine.)
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature succeeds for the same reason that evolution “succeeds.” Life is complicated and messy. There are no easy answers. The only way to determine truth is to scrutinize your own beliefs and subject them to rigorous analysis. Mena is surrounded by people like the big baddie, her former friend Teresa, who see things in black-and-white. Well, the world is not black-and-white and neither is Mena’s psychology. She’s a teenager, so she really has a lot of work to do in the book to figure out a complicated representation of her identity and thoughts. Does Mena lie to herself in the book? Sure. (Especially with regard to how she feels about Casey.) But she’s always striving to reach a deeper understanding of self and of the world around her. ALL of our characters must be as complicated and as messy as possible because that’s what we all are, when you really think about it. There are no absolutes in the way people think and act, only shades of gray.
It’s a bit of a personal tangent, but I also want to thank you for the book because it took me back to 2007, when things were a little…different in the skeptic community. Things are a little…tense at the moment and I miss the way it was.
So thanks again for such a wonderful couple hours of reading. If my YA book ever gets published-don’t hold your breath-it will be fun to look back to see if any of the emotion of your book rubbed off on the ending of mine. I wish you the best of luck in the future and I admire that you’ve become such a prominent YA writer…and it all started with Mena.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
Ensure that you have HIGH STAKES in your story and that you establish those stakes quickly. The events of your narrative need to mean something BIG for your characters. That’s the only way that the reader will care about your make-believe world.
Allow your characters to be as complicated as real people are. Remember those shades of gray. There are no absolutes in the world when it comes to people and why they act the way they do.
Find Ms. Brande on Twitter @RobinBrande. Here is Ms. Brande’s page at Random House Teen. Here is an interview she gave to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a cool book blog.
And you just know you have to check out this cool video interview:
Are you curious about skepticism and how important it is that people understand how to think critically? (This is a big theme in the book.)
Check out the James Randi Educational Foundation. Those hardworking people have been fighting irreality for a very long time. Just look at how fun and interesting Randi was on The Tonight Show. He’s demonstrating how “psychic surgeons” ply their trade. (And Randi should know; he is a world-class magician…he’s also honest about the fact that he’s doing a trick.)
What’s the Harm? is also a great resource. The next time your friend tells you that he or she is going to pay a bunch of money for “cupping,” you can find out what that is and why having it done doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Harriet Hall is an MD who writes about alternative medicine and the like.
And no critical thinker should be without the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We may not always agree with everything a great thinker says, but we ignore them at our own peril.
Title of Work and its Form: Jason Grilli‘s 2007 Topps #61, baseball card Author: Topps Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: You likely have a baseball/sports card shop in your area. Why not pay them a visit? They will likely have this base card. If you don’t know where you can find your local card shop, look it up here. You can also purchase cards on the Internet, of course. Check Out My Cards/Collectibles is pretty cool. (And they furnished the card images you’ll see in the essay.) I also love Sportlots.com; you can get a lot of base cards for a very reasonable price. Ooh, and don’t forget to visit The Bench. It’s hands-down the best baseball card trading site on the Internet. I’ve met a TON of really cool people there.
Bonuses: Mr. Grilli was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in July 2013! Here is an article about how he and the rest of the Pirates bullpen anchored that team’s great season. Here is Mr. Grilli’s home page. You can also follow him on Twitter. Here are Mr. Grilli’s career stats. In October 2013, Mr. Grilli went onstage with Pearl Jam during a Pittsburgh concert and did, well, everything we would do in the same situation. Check out the Sports Cards Blogroll for some very good writing about the hobby and about sports. A couple of my favorite card blogs are Baseball by the Lettersand The Greatest 21 Days. The former blog follows the authors experience in writing letters to ballplayers. The latter goes card-by-card through a classic minor league set to see what happened to the players during and after their baseball careers.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Let me guess. You don’t have a 2007 Topps Jason Grilli sitting on your desk. Thanks to Check Out My Cards, this isn’t a problem:
So, some readers may wonder what the heck writers can learn from a baseball card. Sure, there are some words on it, but is a baseball card a work of literature? I would contend that a baseball card performs many, if not all, of the functions of literature. (One of my long-term goals/dreams, in fact, is to write at least one real baseball card. I need to figure out how to make that happen! Black magic? Some kind of Manchurian Candidate deal?)
A baseball card is an attempt to represent a player’s identity. The kind folks at Topps or Upper Deck or Panini or Score or Donruss or Fleer consider what they want the reader to think about the man. Some of the exposition we get is pretty shallow. We learn Mr. Grilli’s birthdate and which arm he uses to throw and where he was born and where he lives. (It just so happens that Mr. Grilli was born near my place of birth and grew up in the same town as I did. More on that later.)
The folks at the card companies very seldom tell the complete stories of the players. Why? First of all, the cards are too small to fit an utterly comprehensive biography. Further, the companies want to maintain a positive tone. This is why you really don’t see the steroids scandal mentioned on any cards and you certainly don’t read anything about the crimes that various players have committed. (Ty Cobb, for example, once beat up a handicapped spectator who had no hands.)
Topps, however, gives the reader the opportunity to figure out some of the true story for themselves. Look at the statistics Mr. Grilli has accumulated in the major leagues.
Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP BF ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
2000 23 FLA NL 1 0 1.000 5.40 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.2 11 4 4 0 2 0 3 2 0 0 35 86 1.950 14.9 0.0 2.7 4.1 1.50
2001 24 FLA NL 2 2 .500 6.08 6 5 1 0 0 0 26.2 30 18 18 6 11 0 17 2 0 0 115 71 1.538 10.1 2.0 3.7 5.7 1.55
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 12/13/2013.
If you understand what the numbers mean, they tell a story and add detail to the “characterization” of Mr. Grilli. He made his debut in 2000, only a few years after graduating from college (and my high school). That’s good! I remember being proud of him when he won that game. Mr. Grilli pitched in six games the next year. That’s not necessarily bad…it was only his Age 24 year. Then he was out of the majors for a couple years. How would any of us feel in his situation. He must have been confident, but still worried he wouldn’t be able to get back to the majors. Then he did get back to the show in 2004. Now look at the number of games in which he pitched in Detroit. That’s a lot! The team was emerging from the doldrums (thank goodness) and Mr. Grilli was a reliable reliever for them. After a stop in Colorado and Texas…he was out of the majors for the 2010 season. Again-doubt. (The card doesn’t say so, but that’s when Mr. Grilli suffered an unpleasant knee injury.) Pittsburgh time. Mr. Grilli puts up sub-3.00 ERAs each year. Look at those save totals! In his first year as the Pirates’ official closer, Mr. Grilli was responsible for 33 saves. That’s good!
What do we learn about Mr. Grilli from these raw numbers? Well, he must love baseball. Why else would he struggle for so long and fight through so many setbacks? Lefty relievers have a little bit easier time finding places on a roster; as a righty, Mr. Grilli must have worked that much harder. Now, I don’t know if Mr. Grilli has multiple homes (and why shouldn’t he), but his 2013 Heritage card says that he still lives in Baldwinsville, New York, a beautiful little village just outside of Syracuse:
How does all of this apply to writers? Well, I’ve demonstrated how baseball cards are very good at condensing a LOT of information about a person into a very small space. Even if your characters don’t have “statistics,” think of ways to provide bread crumbs of information that reinforce the identity you’re crafting for them. Favorite foods. Number of years on the job. Number of marriages. Number of colleges they attended before finally finishing. Number of boyfriends or girlfriends over the years. Highest number of simultaneous boyfriends or girlfriends.
Now let’s take a look at the prose on the 2007 Topps. Like I said, I always kept tabs on Mr. Grilli’s career because he was a great pitcher…I loved pitching (until I stopped playing at nine or so). His father is Steve Grilli, a man who pitched for the Tigers in the 1970s…I love the Tigers. Jason Grilli went to my high school…I hoped to be a success, too. (I’m still hoping.) Jason Grilli is having the best years of his career and has become a star, even though he’s on the wrong side of 30…I’m a writer, so age isn’t as big a deal…but I’d still like to get something going sooner rather than later.
The prose offers a pretty obvious lesson. Being such an important part of that great 2006 Tigers team, “helped erase the frustration of years of elbow problems.” Writers and pitchers are quite different, but we all need to emulate Mr. Grilli’s routines. He works out all the time and has a throwing regimen crafted to keep him in shape during the offseason and to keep him fresh at the end of the year. He must watch game footage and study batters to try and understand their weaknesses. During some of Mr. Grilli’s struggles, it must have seemed like the majors were far away, let alone the postseason. (He has a 0.00 ERA in 6.1 total innings.) Like him, we just need to plug away every day so we can be in the right position when we run into a little bit of luck. Mr. Grilli was picked up by the Tigers and the Pirates as those teams were getting better and he was able to contribute because of his regimen.
Now let’s look at the sentences. You’ll notice that they’re all pretty simple. Why might this be the case? Well, this is a baseball card and is intended for an audience of adults (who have money) and of children (who tell their parents how to spend money). Although some sets feature prose that is intended for children, the Topps flagship sets are written for a mixed audience.
Look at the last sentence: “The converted starter limited first-batters-faced to a .170 batting average.” A pronoun would have been just fine in this situation, but the person who wrote the card used a more specific term than “he.” Instead, “he” was described as “the converted starter.” Not only did the writer avoid using another pronoun, but he or she was able to pack more characterization into the small space allotted by the medium. The reader learns from this switch that Mr. Grilli was a starter and is now a reliever. (And that he was really good against the first batters he stared down in each game.)
What Should We Steal?
Offer your reader powerful characterization in the form of “statistics.” What are some small details about your character that are especially potent?
Maintain your daily regimen and keep writing until something good happens. You can’t manufacture “luck.” All you can do is make sure that you have a really cool manuscript ready to go when you happen to sit next to an editor on an airplane.
Replace pronouns with more powerful descriptors.
Here’s some more fun stuff:
Night Owl Cards (another favorite blog) wrote a post about a series of baseball cards dedicated to baseball writers.
And believe it or not, the major card companies have included some great scribes in some of their sets!
Title of Work and its Form:Holdup, novel Author: Terry Fields Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by Square Fish (a Macmillan imprint). You can purchase the book online or at a local independent bookstore.
Bonuses: Here is an appearance that Ms. Fields made on the Book Bytes for Kids podcast in which she discusses Holdup. (She seems like a very kind and cool woman!) Here is a short essay Ms. Fields wrote for authors who want to get their books to a wider audience.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
This very cool book recounts the points of view of nine people whose lives are forever entwined during a Burger Heaven robbery. Two of the characters are robbing the place and the rest are employees or customers who deal with the event. Ms. Fields introduces the reader to a wide range of characters: the type-A young woman who isn’t supposed to be there today, the outsider who just wants to be seen for his personality, an older woman who tries to help a bright young man see that he can improve his life. In terms of summary, that’s really enough. Read for yourself to discover all of the twists and turns in the narrative.
Ms. Fields structures the book in an interesting way. Each of the characters has a say and offers their perspective (and exposition) in their own unique voices. The type-A young woman evokes empathy with her struggle at being a go-getter while also enjoying life. The drive-thru master breaks your heart with his belief that he’ll never be good enough to go to college. The structure (reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s excellent Election) results in an interesting twist on third and first person prose. Each of the sections are written in the first person, allowing Ms. Fields to decrease the distance between the character on the reader. The cumulative effect of all of these first person accounts indicates a third person narrator behind it all. Who is pulling the strings? Who (other than Ms. Fields, of course) decides which characters speak and when? Who decided how much of the narrative would take place before the robbery? Ms. Fields has her cake and eats it too; all of the passion and conversation of the first person POV with the narrative flexibility of the third person.
This is a book about high schoolers who, we must admit, are pretty much adults. (Particularly when they commit violent crimes.) I haven’t finished my Young Adult book-who am I kidding; I likely never will-so I don’t know how much resistance Ms. Fields got from her publisher or from the marketplace for employing violence in the book and hinting toward sex and drugs. (I found a kind review from School Library Journal that seemed pretty accepting of the book’s themes.) Ms. Fields is smart enough not to talk down to young people or to pretend that sixteen-, seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds aren’t having sex and getting into trouble. The book feels real because the characters are drawn with verisimilitude. I have difficulty enjoying bowdlerized works.
Quick explanation: We get the term “bowdlerized” from Thomas Bowdler, who rewrote Shakespeare to make it more “appropriate” for family audiences. In the course of doing so, Mr. Bowdler gutted the plays of meaning. The same principle applies when you watch Goodfellas, one of the best movies ever, on television or on an airplane. Instead of watching the 146-minute masterpiece depicting gangsters using gangster words, you can watch a fifteen-minute short film about a man named Henry Hill, who worked at an airport and made spaghetti sauce.
See why bowdlerized works lack verisimilitude? (The appearance of reality in fiction.) I love that Theresa understands she’s attractive, but refuses to accept being touched by the gross grill guy. I love that Dylan really seems to have the narcissism of a hardened criminal. I don’t want to ruin anything, but there is violence in the story…AS THERE SHOULD BE. It’s a book about a fast-food robbery. Stuff needs to happen.
What Should We Steal?
Employ a third person narrator that really consists of many first person ones. When you assemble many first-hand accounts, get all of the benefits of one-on-one conversation with the powers of second-hand accounts.
Avoid bowdlerizing your own work. If you’re writing about a gangster, he or she probably must swear and shoot people. If you’re writing about teenagers, they are going to have sex…or at least they’ll really WANT to.
Title of Work and its Form: “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye,” poem Author: Aimee Nezhukumatathil (on Twitter @aimeenez) Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s collection At the Drive-In Volcano. (Available now from Tupelo Press!) You can also find the poem on the Poetry Foundation web site. It’s right here.
Bonuses: Ms. Nezhukumatathil is everywhere! Here is an interview she did with fellow GWS subject Roxane Gay. Learn about Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s philosophy on poetry in her interview with the Poetry Society of America. And here is an interview she did with Flyway, a site dedicated to writing influenced by nature.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Poetic Forms
The poem features a first-person narrator who is directly addressing the man with whom she is attending an auction. While the auctioneer “rackets” on, the narrator considers what will happen in two days when she sees her lover off at the airport. She will feel a sense of loss and will miss him greatly, a sadness that colors the time she is spending with him.
What do you notice first about the poem? Okay, okay, the beautiful imagery. What do you notice next? The poem is a villanelle, a kind of poem that follows the following rules:
The poem must have nineteen lines.
The poem must consist of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza).
The first and third lines of each tercet must have the same rhyme; this rhyme is repeated in the last two lines of the quatrain.
You might think that writing in a strict form could stifle your creativity, but look what the form does for Ms. Nezhukumatathil. The recurring image of the man’s corduroy jacket becomes a sad refrain; the woman remembers the smell and texture of the jacket, the kind of visceral sensory input that we crave from those we love. The use of a poetic form also forms a structure that the reader can use to understand your poem. If you knew about villanelles before I told you about it, then you understood that the ending couplet would be coming up and would not be shocked by the turn that Ms. Nezhukumatathil makes in the quatrain.
Ms. Nezhukumatathil is following in the footsteps of countless great poets by writing a villanelle; you’ve probably read Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The familiarity of the form allows you to not only compare your work to the others that came before, but also allows your reader to relax into your piece in the same way they did upon reading the Thomas.
What is that turn in the final quatrain? Ms. Nezhukumatathil begins the poem in the dramatic present, as the woman and man go to the auction. In the third tercet, the narrator launches into a bit of a daydream; she thinks about taking him to the airport and kissing him goodbye and making love to him. The third-to-last line represents a return to the dramatic present. Isn’t this a perfectly natural depiction of time spent with a lover who must soon leave? No matter where you go or what you do, the specter of the departure looms over everything!
Uh oh. It looks as though Ms. Nezhukumatathil broke a rule of writing. The third stanza mixes up the tenses a little bit. The narrator, who is at an auction in the dramatic present, says that she “will” drive the gentleman to the airport. In the next sentence she mentions that “lines sear” her cheek when they hug. She didn’t say “will!” Is this confusing? Of course not. That phrase “lines sear” is much more powerful the way Ms. Nezhukumatathil cast it. You sear meat on a grill and you sear yourself onto the heart of someone you love.
Ms. Nezhukumatathil hooked me with her beautiful images. (Gosh, the part about fingering the rim of the coffee cup is sad and sweet!) She also hooked me because there’s a part of her poem I didn’t understand. Some folks are scared of poetry because they claim not to be able to understand any of it and some poetry is intentionally opaque. Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s poem, however, is “hard to understand” in one place and in a good way. The rest of the poem is clear as crystal, but I am hung up on “how it haunts me still—what I bid—lost, sacked/ and wrapped for other girls.” The “confusion” that I have is really a point of analysis. I get to decide what the lines mean because the rest of the poem provides the context I need to come up with something interesting.
What Should We Steal?
Adopt a strict form to force you to be creative in other ways. Sometimes writers are daunted by having too many choices. Writing a piece that adheres to a pre-established form can help winnow down all of those choices, allowing you to shine in the places in the form that are untouched by the rules.
Break grammatical rules, but only when you have a reason to do so.We follow the rules of grammar in order to make our writing powerful. We break the rules of grammar in order to make our writing powerful.
Offer opaque statements…once in a while. A little mystery or confusion can be good for a reader…but only a little bit. Don’t sacrifice the reader’s understanding of the piece as a whole.
Title of Work and its Form: “Mr. Disappear-o,” short story Author: Mike Alber (On Twitter: @malber) Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Quick Fiction 11. The piece can be found on Mr. Alber’s site. See the PDF right here.
Bonuses: Mr. Alber is a very cool guy and that really comes through in his appearance on the TV Writer Podcast. Cool, here’s an online chat he did for fellow TV writers. (Isn’t it awesome how much he likes to share with others?) And here‘s his IMDB page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: NarrativeEconomy
The male narrator, now an adult, is reflecting upon his habit of swallowing objects in hopes of changing the way people feel about him. He swallowed cufflinks to keep his father at home. He downed the objects on his teacher’s desk to amuse his classmates. A girlfriend’s family heirloom went down the hatch because it made him a part of her family. (Admittedly, in a very odd way.) The story ends as the narrator breaks up with the girlfriend, but he carries a reminder of her in his gastrointestinal tract: one of her keys.
The story is very sad, even though it’s very short. How does Mr. Alber pack so much meaning into less than a page of text? He chooses one great central metaphor and doesn’t leave it. The narrator swallows things because he wants the people he loves to be a part of him in a way that is otherwise impossible in his life. (That’s my idea, at least.) Mr. Alber didn’t have a lot of page space with which to work, so every paragraph relates to the idea in some way:
He swallows a cufflink to keep his father near
We learn the origin of his swallowing stuff; his peers enjoy the performance
He swallowed a girlfriend’s heirloom and has his eye on her Maglite
He met the girlfriend in an appropriate manner: she’s a gastroenterologist
Flashback: he swallows the items his peers give him
Dramatic present: he wants to confess his feelings to the girlfriend, but can only express himself in the way to which he has become accustomed.
You should always try to make your images and your characters’ actions as powerful as possible—think Susan Sarandon placing her husband’s picture face-down in Thelma and Louise. The form of the short-short story requires you every element of your story to do as much “work” as possible.
Mr. Alber also exercises one of the fiction writer’s greatest advantages. If you’re writing a play, you need to worry a LOT about scene changes. Can we build a rocketship that we can get onstage after the chocolate factory scene? How can Matthew Broderick sing is “I Want” song and be in a chicken costume two minutes later? How can we let the audience know that six million years have passed between scenes? Fiction writers can simply tell the reader what about the situation has changed.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Boom. No matter what WAS happening, the reader knows that the narrator has brought him or her to the ranch. Mr. Alber does this especially well in the third paragraph of his story. In the second paragraph, the narrator is a child, and then—
Later, I was dating a nervous woman with exquisite breasts.
The reader easily understands that the narrator is referencing events that take place far later than the schoolroom scene. A little kid probably isn’t “dating” and certainly doesn’t have a girlfriend who has “exquisite breasts.” (The ability to zip through time is also very important in a story of this length.) The narrator is also the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of practice telling his story, making it a natural choice for him to jump around a lot as he tells his tale.
What Should We Steal?
Concentrate your imagery like Minute Maid concentrates orange juice.The shorter your story is, the more powerful your metaphors must be.
Assert your right as narrator and slide between locations and time in a felicitous manner. The methods will vary depending on the genre in which you’re writing, but take advantage of the unique ways in which stories can be built in the form you’ve chosen.