The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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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. 

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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.

Written by 
Dancers

This week’s story is available on Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Click the image to get to issue 192. I’d suggest reading at least the first 15 paragraphs or so for context, but it’d be really cool, also, if you read the entire story. Or, as I did, listen to the podcast, which is incredibly well-read. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers. 


The Challenge:


One of my unsettling habits is “accidentally” writing fairy tales.

Haven’t done it much recently, but it used to be a huge problem for me. It was easy to see why it was happening: a lot of the work that I was reading and enjoying most was fairy-tale like, and fairy tales have this resolve-or-die pacing that worked for me while I was doing the whole full-time work/full-time class thing. But I didn’t always want to write a fairy tale and didn’t always feel in control of that. 


But I was able to find out why the stories came off reading like fairy tales. One reason, already mentioned, was the pacing. It was quick, almost like the narration was skimming the story. Minimal on description, minimal on character. Consequently, the second major reason my work read like fairy tales was a lack of detail. 

So minimally-younger me shrugs and decides to include more “grounding” details in one of my fairy-tale like stories. 

But the problem becomes how to choose details. You can just toss in a bunch of description and detail and cross your fingers. Your story will sludge up and readers will have to wade through all that.

Here’s a story that does an excellent job of being choosy. 


The Story:

For a study of detail, is there a better place to turn than secondary world fantasy?

Tamara Vardomskaya’s “The Three Dancers of Gizari” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies back in February (that’s really all the longer ago it was?) uses detail to awesomely. In so few words, all while moving the story forward, Vardomskaya gives us an excellent sense of this world, which we know from the get-go is in a modern-ish era thanks to the quick detail of the “Arts Today” magazine (an important setup move in a genre when readers tend to expect older eras).

Through the use of detail, we get this intense look at not just the history of the world but also at the characters. 


And, also, what an incredibly well-structured, well-paced story, complete with a surprise ending that was totally given away in the first scene, somehow without me catching on! Seriously, read it and be amazed. 

The Solution: 

We learn such a wide-breadth of information in this tale: a brief history of each character, of the use of artistic materials, and of each of the two countries involved. We also get detail on how women are treated in these societies and how the rich and poor differ (and just how big a gap there is between the rich and the poor). We also happen to learn about the evolution of theater troupes and media conglomerates the world over. 

How do we learn all of this?

We learn it through Bathenica Morning, the point-of-view character.

It seems obvious to say that details of the world should come from the main character’s concerns. That’s advice I think I’ve heard before. But it’s also so vague as to be mostly useless. 


Switching gears, let’s talk about specific moments in the story. After you read the first 15 paragraphs you should basically be able to name the kinds of details that the story returns to pretty often. Well, you should be able to name at least one, maybe two, or all three if you’re a genius. But once you’ve read the story to the end once or twice, it becomes fairly obvious that the story limits itself (for the most part) to three kinds of details. 
  1. Costs of Things
  2. Trivia about/Descriptions of Art
  3. Family Names 
Why these?

Firstly, I’m going to focus on the most obvious set of details: cost.

One of the first details we get is the cost of a floor mosaic (1,023,048.18 thalers sterling). Interesting to note that this is a very large number and we know it before we even get the context provided by Bathenica’s weekly wage (only 30 thalers sterling a week), at which point we understand that a million ts. is a ton of money in this world. And, because her backstory seems to indicate that she’s come a long way, we understand that 30 ts. a week is a good wage. 


As the story goes on, Bathenica lists the price of just about everything. We come to understand that it is an obsession of hers and it puts that first million dollar price-tag in perspective so that when you re-read the story the constant pricing of items seems almost some kind of OCD response to anxiety. 

Which matches up well with the other two kinds of details.

Bathenica’s anxiety about money goes back to her childhood and connects with her last name “Morning” which is indicative of her class. Through her narration, she ensures that you know everyone’s last names, because she is constantly thinking about the stratification caused by family. Even in the first scene she refers to Izida, who she is close with, by her first and last name. Awfully formal but also, an important part of Bathenica’s psyche. 

Because of her low income, art becomes this thing that Bathenica strives for but cannot actually have.

We realize that while she can afford nice things on her wage, she could never afford a million dollar mosaic, and certainly would never deign to walk all over said piece of art, the way her boss does in the first paragraph. But it is an interest of hers to the point of obsession, so she gives us all the juicy tidbits about art. 


These three detail touchstones (the luxury of art, the stratification of names, the prices of everything) spin around each other in this story, creating a subliminal kind of drama. She wants art, but can’t afford it, and it makes her anxious enough that she is constantly picking at the cost of daily things. It is this drama that pushes us headlong toward the end of this story and the terribly satisfying resolution. Funny thing: these same details also disguise the ending–claiming that it’s impossible. Without these details and their constantly revolving conflict, the story would be boring. 

So while “details should come from the main character’s concerns” is true, it can be better said. 

Finally:

Better way to say it: Details should spawn from the main character’s obsessions

Best way to say it: Details should spawn from the main character’s obsessions and evoke the plot of the story

When you know what your story is about, whether it’s before you draft or after, figure out which details can contribute to the push and pull of the conflict. The right details can move your plot and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Of course, this isn’t the only technique that I’ve seen for choosing details (Kij Johnson and Kelly Link often list stuff in big chunks) and it probably wouldn’t work for every story, but in the right narrative, it can be very effective. 

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. 

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Tremblay Bourbon YBW1

Welcome to the first installment of my new weekly blog series on what my readings this week have taught me about writing. Generally speaking, I’ll be sticking to the same format every week but will make changes as you suggest them (either in the comments below or through the “Contact” form). As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers, but it’s always advisable to read the story first, for context. 

This week’s story is available for free by clicking the Bourbon Penn Issue 8 cover to the above. If you read the first 6 paragraphs or so it will add a lot of context to this post, but it will also suck you in, I’m sure. 


The Challenge:

Writing a gender that differs from your own is an uphill battle from the start.

As soon as a reader picks up your story, they’ll note the gender your name seems to indicate, and it colors their reading of your story. I’m a writer who often chooses to write from a female POV, and so my college workshops often questioned the voice of my narrator–they’d tell me that I needed to work on making the voice of my character “girlier” as if there is some easily definable and generalize-able difference in the way other-gendered people would narrate a story.

Dutiful workshop student as I was, I started going down the hole of research on the Birds and the Bees. 

Don’t go down that hole. It’s riddled with bad, even offensive advice. Instead, read a story. 


The Story: 

An excellent recent example of a writer narrating from another gender’s POV is Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” which was published in Bourbon Penn and went on to be chosen by Laird Barron for Year’s Best Weird Fiction V1.


First time I read this story, it blew me away. The speculative element is in the background but does an amazing job of complementing the foregrounded “mundane” drama of a drug-addicted mother trying to raise her daughter, who she no longer has custody of. It’s a first person story written in the rambling style that is typical of first person narratives from characters who are struggling with addiction, but the flow of the prose is undeniably well controlled and the two story-lines (speculative and non speculative) come crashing together at just the right time. 

Also, the story is short. In Year’s Best Weird Fiction it is only 6 pages long. 

Needless to say, I love this story. An additional item of note: when I went back to read the story again, just for fun, I had somehow erased from my mind that the author was a man. While I never have before used the “Not convinced by the female voice” line when critiquing a story, I’ve also never been so convinced by a character’s voice that I switched the gender of the author to match. So I needed to know why. 


The Solution: 

Here’s the thing about Tremblay’s narrator: she does so many things that are typically seen as masculine. She swears and breaks things and clomps around in boots. Her thoughts often run violent. She is not a girly girl. To kidnap her daughter, she pulls a big ol’ knife on her mother’s boyfriend.


Also this author does not have the luxury of simply calling the character a “she” because it’s in first person. For the first 2 paragraphs, we have no clue of her gender. 

Still, Tremblay has obviously put a lot of work into convincing us of her gender, especially in the first scene, where there are 5 different clues. In the middle scene, we get 0 reminders of the character’s Gender, and in the final scene we get 3. They are of 3 kinds:


Direct Gender Coding: These come from the narrator herself and appear to work best when hidden in the character’s voice. They should be simple, and not overly clever. 

  1. “I never signed up to be their bogeywoman.” (Paragraph 6)
  2. “You sing it, girl.”  (Paragraph 31)
  3. “So something a mom would say.” (Paragraph 62)
  4. “Your Mom’s here.” (Final Paragraph)

Indirect Gender Coding: These come from outside the narration in some way. Other sources, such as other characters and one news story, can be incredibly convincing in coding gender. These are often more subtle and complex, and definitely less tied in to the narrator’s voice. This part includes the way other characters treat your narrator. 
  1. “The officer said the police don’t know why the mother headed south.” (Paragraph 3, first indication of gender) 
  2. “She’ll ask me questions the whole time about boyfriends and having kids.” (Paragraph 10)
  3. “Mrs. Ewing always used to say that I should smile more because I was so pretty.” (Paragraph 59, “pretty” being an adjective Mrs. Ewing would only use for girls)

Coding with Mannerisms and Thoughts: Probably the most challenging but also most convincing form of gender coding, the first of these is what really sold me on the gender, I think. 
  1. “When Brian sees it’s me dragging that bag of oranges over the scanner, me wondering which orange Julie will eat, sees it’s me asking if he has a Big Y rewards card, and I ask it smiling and snapping my gum, daring him to say something, anything, he can barely look me in the eye. (Paragraph 5, Note how the action of “snapping my gum” is buried in this sentence. It avoid attracting attention by being in the middle of a long sentence in a long paragraph, but a reader registers it subconsciously. A perfectly executed move.)
  2. “He was a quack who spent most of our sessions trying to look down my shirt, but I think he was right about breaking out of patterns.” (Paragraph 6. See the specificity of this concern? It’s not something that a male patient would usually be worried about.)

The Danger: 

It’s of course coding with mannerisms and thoughts that is the most convincing of the bunch. On their own, these codes are so subtle as to be meaningless (because a man can snap his gum, for instance), but when paired with the direct and indirect coding they can be powerful. Best when they match the character’s voice and are evocative.


Put a lot of time into thinking of a specific action that can evoke your character and avoid easy choices that play into stereotypes and that won’t do nearly as much work (men play football, girls brush their hair, etc).


Finally:

In this story, Tremblay creates a convincing female POV without resorting to gender norms by bringing to life a complex character that often crosses lines that traditionally separate the genders. It’s his use of a varied system of clues that allows him to really nail this POV.

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. 

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So the day’s finally here: See the Elephant 2 was announced by Metaphysical Circus Press and in the table of contents is…my name! Plus a bunch of other great names, like Rachel Schwarz and Cassandra Khaw! 
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Thanks for visiting my new site, and I hope you’ll check out the second issue of this awesome new zine.