The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Written by 
F&SF marapr16This week’s story isn’t available online (sorry!) but if you click the picture to the left you’ll find the page for F&SF March/April 2016 where it appeared and, from there, links to places where you can purchase a copy. I love reading F&SF because it is one of the most eclectic mags around, and if you give it a try you’re bound to love at least a handful of the stories in these huge issues. And just a warning: spoilers ahead. I’ll be talking plot, so there’s really no avoiding them.

The Challenge:

Sometimes one problem is not enough to get your character to the end of a story (although sometimes it is). Sometimes, you have to continually get your characters in trouble again and again, and it can be hard to think up compelling ways for them to get in trouble. It is, in fact, easy to brainstorm real awful, obvious things (off the top of my head: a set of apocalyptic heroes are starving, looking for food, so they go hunting but they can’t catch any meat, then they find out they’re poaching land claimed by a dictator, then a zombie hoard comes upon them and those zombies eat them alive).

What strikes me as more challenging is coming up with believable challenges and obstacles that push the story forward with out the sigh-worthy melodrama my above example.

The Story: 

Now, I can’t confess to being a die-hard Cat Rambo fan, but one story I read recently that really impressed me was “Red in Tooth and Cog” in F&SF‘s March/Apr issue. This story has a super clever premise: if all your appliances are vaguely self-aware and have the ability to modify themselves, what happens when they get loose? Rambo answers: they form an ecosystem and a society that we can witness only if we’re paying enough attention. 

It’s a really neat story, and it does awesome work as far as getting the character into trouble in ways that are believable and that we can relate to. 

The Solution: 

What I’ll offer first is a sort of outline of the trouble that the main character, Renee, gets into, with some commentary in between each one. If mundane, the start of this story is decidedly distinct and bold. Here is the first data point, the first piece of trouble, that I offer. 

1. “It was an expensive, new-model phone in a pretty case, and that was probably why it was stolen.” (40)

Doesn’t sound super interesting does it? But, you know, losing a phone is something many modern people can relate to and it’s an absolute pain. To help us toward this feeling, Rambo actually begins the story with a short meditation on the value of phones and, through negation, what you lose when you lose your phone. And to keep up the interest, we are shown our first glimpse into the mechanical ecosystem of this future Central Park. Her phone was stolen by a semi-conscious can opener. 

To take the stakes further though, as Cat knows she must to keep the story going, she piles on to what has already been lost. The phone didn’t really matter, but the case “was customized, irreplaceable.” And that mystery carries us until we learn Renee’s grandmother’s gemstones had been set into that case, and that not only does Renee really want them back, she is also soon to see her grandmother, who will be very angry to find the gems missing. Renee spends a few pages searching the park and learning about this ecosystem, which is fun and the little bit of stakes in the background tells us it’s heading somewhere. She briefly mentions that she has “creative time” at work that allows her freedom to be in the park. 

So you know where this is heading, don’t you?

2. “Work was suffering” (51). 

What relateable trouble to be in: she got a little too invested in something outside of work and now her job is in jeopardy. It’s perhaps even more relateable than losing a phone and is definitely an increase in stakes. Losing a job has all of these implied horrors: eviction, hunger, crushing poverty. And we’re at this point in the story where we know that Renee can’t just give up her trips to the park. She’s too invested! 

At the same time, the ecosystem in the park might not be around much longer. A park inspector is coming with some drones to scan the park for anomalies and when she finds them, she’ll send all the appliances for recycling where they’ll be shredded down to bits. 

So we know where this is going too, but we’re waiting for it in suspense the whole time. 

3. “Her supervisor called her in, a special meeting that left her hot-eyed, fighting back tears” (54). 

Not surprising right? But then, it is, because she doesn’t get fired. Or written up. It’s a warning, an opportunity, a choice: give up your obsession, come back to this job you don’t really like (her training is in art) and you can keep your job, your lifestyle, your home. You can go back to the happy bejeweled-phone life you had before. She reacts to this choice presented to her, and it could be really easy to have her just walk away at this point, choose her job–all the conflicts are resolved, there’s no obstacle to push the story forward. 

But then the next paragraph happens. 

4. “There’s a way to save the creatures.” 
     “What is it?” Renee asks. 
     “It’s illegal.”
     “But what is it?”

Right here, this exchange, made me give in to this story completely. On one hand, as a writer, I was thinking, isn’t that such an obvious move? Create a new struggle in the next paragraph? But then, it’s elegantly done (because a lot of foreshadowing has led to this point) and it’s exactly where it needs to be. Just as the tension drops away, it spikes right back up. And it’s the perfect time for this mission to appear because it is part of the choice she was presented with by her boss. 

This could be a way out of her obsession. Let them all die. 

And it’s brilliantly done because, even though she could easily get caught, it’s as simple as pressing a button. In the end, if she presses the button, she saves the little creatures and probably loses her job. If she doesn’t press it, she keeps her job, but loses this new world she’s discovered. 

The tension of this leads us right to the end of the story. What do you think Renee chooses? 

Finally:

It’s an incredible structure. Very well controlled and thought out, and quite relateable. Ultimately I think the lesson I take from this story is that stakes don’t actually have to start with life and death, as long as they grow to something serious during the course of the story. And sometimes the trouble can be really mundane, everyday stuff, and that can have greater impact than all the zombie hoards on TV. 

A lost phone? Trouble at work? Breaking the law for the greater good? We get these kinds of trouble.

They harbor immediacy. 

The first two, at least, are pretty common. And are completely free of melodrama. 

So when thinking of getting your character in trouble, maybe the best place to start is by mining your own life? Maybe something you take for granted would become real serious if it was threatened. Also, an even bigger takeaway: if you’ve run out of trouble, make more in the very next sentence. Don’t skip a line. Don’t transition. Just do it, and probably go back to foreshadow. Sometimes we are wrong when we’re writing and we feel like a move is clunky or obvious. 

Do you have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? What are your experiences with getting characters into trouble?

Written by 
the wildsToday I’ll be referring to multiple stories, none of which are available for free online, unfortunately. That said, to anyone who likes genre-bending awesomeness, I’d wholeheartedly recommend The Wilds by Julia Elliot, a short story collection that is mostly excellent (although it has its ups and downs). These stories stretch a wide range from science fiction to fantasy to realism all in this great style that is composed mostly of short sentences while still maintaining a kind of poetry. (Clicking on the photo will take you to the Tin House page for the book.) As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

Southern Gothic is one of my great fictional loves because even when it’s courting realism, it feels so fantastic. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor,  Lewis Nordan, and now Julia Elliot. To me, one of the best things about the genre, and one of the few things all the above writers have in common, is a thick and chaotic sense of characters as full people. The characters in The Wilds do just that by presenting us with conflicted, flawed, and zaney characters who still come across as real human beings. She really seems to capture the essences of  her characters and make them pop off the page. 

How in the world does she do that? It really leaves me speechless. 

The Story:

Lacking the discipline of being able to choose a single story, and hoping a wide breadth will be helpful, I’d like to toss a handful of quotes in your direction. These quotes are descriptive moments for three specific characters from three stories of the collection. 

From “Rapture” — Meemaw: “There she was, the infamous Meemaw, a scrunched piece of a woman in a tangerine pantsuit of stretch polyester, a gleaming black brooch pinned among the ruffles of her lime blouse. She sported a Washingtonian cap of white hair, which gave her tobacco-cured face a stately quality. A few grey whiskers twitched around her fuchsia lips as she smiled.” (18)
VS. 
“Her small frame shook. She reached into the pocket of her housecoat and pulled out a penny candy, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. She frowned as though butterscotch were bile.” (29)

From “Feral” — Dr. Vilkas (the de-domestication expert): “He wore army fatigues. He shot his own footage with a digital Minicam. Half artist, half scientist, he looked a little wild himself, peering through unkempt black hair with an unnerving set of mismatched eyes–one blue, one green. Though an American citizen, Dr. Vilkas had a trace of an accent, trilling and growling, and the way he pronounced his z’s made me blush.” (79)
VS.
“He bobbed along, buoyed toward me, until, hurled at my feet, he squatted on the crumbling asphalt. Tongue lolling, he panted. Squatting, grinning, he winked at me. And then he threw his head back and howled, Adam’s apple pulsing, until the dogs joined in” (108). 

From “The Whipping” — Dad: “In one hour and forty five minutes my punishment will transpire. That’s how Dad, who sits in the kitchen flicking ash on his greasy plate of pork crumbs, always says it” (197). 
VS. 
“I look up to see my father standing on the back stoop, eating a Little Debbie Star Crunch and staring up into the trees. He looks like he wants to sprout feathers and a beak and fly up there to romp in the branches with some sexy medieval witch who’s turned herself into a hawk. A warm breeze flutters his hair, and longing oozes from him, but all he can do is chomp a huge bite out of his Star Crunch and close his eyes as he chews the sticky sweet gunk. When he opens his eyes, he catches me looking. He winces. He grins. He tries to look sober” (214). 

These are just a handful of the stellar moments in which Julia Elliot makes her characters pop off the page. 


The Solution: 

George Saunders has this anecdote about revision, which I’ve heard him talk about at least three or four times, because he uses it so often.

He begins with the sentence “Bob crossed the room to sit on the blue couch.” Then he says to himself, is it really necessary to say “to sit” when I could just say “sat”? And do we need to know that Bob crossed the room? So he transforms the sentence into “Bob sat on the blue couch.” But does it matter that the couch is blue? No, Saunders says. So: “Bob sat on the couch.” Finally, Saunders asks, do we even care about the couch? So the sentence becomes simply “Bob.”

Saunders never wraps this anecdote up in a bow–its a joke about his slow revision process more than anything else, I think, but it’s enlightening all the same in a bunch of ways. First, and most obviously, he is showing that his focus in revision is “what will the readers care about?” and second, his emphasis in revision is always with the characters. “Bob.” 

But, taking a look at the process to which he gets to “Bob,” we can see this common wisdom in writing that data–exposition and description–don’t matter.

In workshops and writing books alike, a constant emphasis is placed on not over-utlizing data and that’s a good thing, but the trouble is that under-utilizing data can leave your story flat and lifeless. “Bob crossed the room to sit on the blue couch” is a rather plain sentence and it feels unimportant, but what if it the blueness of the couch was important in the greater context of the story? And what does the sentence “Bob” do to move the story forward or tell us anything about the character?

I imagine, with a more nuanced sentence, that Saunder’s anecdote would be hard to repeat. Even if we can cut words from the description of Meemaw above, would it empower the story the way the current quote does? Here it is cut down to just the necessary pieces:

“There was Meemaw in a pantsuit, a brooch pinned on her blouse. She sported hair, which gave her face a quality. Whiskers twitched around her lips as she smiled.”

Compared to the original quote, this new sentence is vague. It fails to paint a picture of the grandma physically. It fails to evoke her, and everything that the main character feels about her: hints of fear and admiration and respect and mystery. All of that has drained from the sentence, simply through the removal of the adjectives. So how does Elliott manage to evoke her characters so successfully?


I think there are a few parts to this. 

  1. The narrator of the tale is never evoked like this–in fact it is the protagonist/narrator who evokes the other characters. It all feels natural in the voice of the narrator. Her voice romanticizes these other characters through their strange involvement in this moment of her life. For instance, the Dad in “The Whipping” is described in great detail multiple times, yet it feels natural because of the state of anxiety the main character is in, because she knows that in two hours she will be punished. 
  2.  All of the characters are granted lovingly strange details. A “Washingtonian cap of white hair,” and “mismatched eyes–one blue, one green,” and “eating a Little Debbie Star Crunch and staring up into the trees” all are these wonderful images that clue you in to the fact that Elliott can really picture these characters, and that these are moments when she is letting us inside her mind and deep into the story. 
  3. Elliott says in interviews that she used to write really purple prose, and she credits the control of that impulse with her success as a writer. And in much of her stories that is true, but she has these moments in the story where she allows a little excess to show us a character, fully drawn, in their natural habitat. Not just once, usually not even just twice, but multiple times in the story, she will allow the reader to view one of her strange characters from different angles and in different situations. These are moments of exposition and adjective-heavy description that allow us a real glimpse into her stories and, without them, I think the stories would be cardboard-dry. 

Finally: 

Here’s how she reveals character to us: She sees them clearly, knows her POV and she allows herself a moment of data-dropping. 

Writing is a constant balancing act. Control the overuse of exposition and description, but also control the impulse to gut your story until you’ve laid it bare and flat.

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read. 

Written by 

Love-and-War-in-the-SlipstreamFINAL-678x1024
Hey everybody! My first full-length short story appears today in See the Elephant Issue 2: Love and War in the Slipstream. 

Pick up a copy by clicking the picture. Only $2.99, available as PDF, Mobi or EPub. 

If you read it, I’d be ecstatic to hear what you think! Leave me a comment or use the contact form at the bottom of the page to reach me. 

Thanks for supporting this awesome new zine.