The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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anchor-bookClicking the image to the left will take you to NPR’s website for the story “The Old Dictionary” by Lydia Davis, which I read in an anthology called The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus. I highly recommend this collection if you’re interested in literary fiction at all–one reviewer criticized it for trying “too hard” to entertain, generally a sign that it’s from the “light side” of lit fiction. We’re going to be talking today about character change, tightly compressed into flash. Warning, spoilers ahead!

The Challenge: 

In short fiction, finding believable space for character change can be a challenge, yet often a story feels empty without it. So how can you pull this off–how have other people pulled this off? That’s what I aim to find out.

To get as nitty-gritty as possible, let’s look at a really impressive flash fiction story. 


The Story:

Who better than Lydia Davis for this exploration? Her work can get unbelievably short (and sure, some of it might just be poetry) and is also entertaining, believable, and moving. The last bit, the “moving” part, always impresses me, and is one of the things that made “The Old Dictionary” stand out to me. 

It’s the story of a researcher and her realization about how she treats her son. By the end of the story she decides to change. How does Davis pull this off? In ways both complex and simple. 

Give it a read. It’s quick, and beautiful. 

The Solution:

Ultimately, for a character to experience believable change, they must struggle through and survive an Odyssey. Their current status needs to be challenged and questioned, and they must allow their experiences to shift their beliefs or actions toward change. 

In short stories, there often just isn’t time for such a long journey. My copy of The Odyssey stands a solid 560 pages thick. But I’d argue that Lydia Davis pulls off a character change in her 1000 word flash fiction tale. In fact, I’d argue she went into it specifically to test the assumption that character arcs are impossible in flash fiction. All of her decisions, narratively and stylistically, limit her space and push her toward focusing on character change. 

Stylistically, she keeps her sentences short, even clipped at times. This forces her to always push forward, digging deeper into her character. She also chose first person, which allows you to trim significant framing and description, and allows an almost-exclusively internal story to feel much more natural. The “telling” nature of the story allows for an insane amount of compression, and allows the narrator to struggle with her own actions. 

Narratively, almost all of the actual story has happened in the past. The character thinks about her typical treatment of her son, and struggles through the why. And it’s important to note that Davis makes this struggle feel very concrete, very real, by including specific real-world details about the plants, the dog, her son, etc. She tires to explain her (brutish?) actions one way, then corrects herself, then tries another way. She examines other specimens, too, in trying to puzzle through her motivations. The narrator’s struggle with this moral issue is visceral to the point that you can feel the tension building. It’s the details that do that. 

The last 2 elements I’ll mention are perhaps the most important moments in the story: the beginning and the end. 

1. The beginning includes an inciting incident, in lifting the old dictionary carefully from its case. With its detailed description and present-day time, this is easily the largest moment of external conflict in the story, and that’s important. It gives this journey a real-world catalyst and a touchstone to return to so that it never rambles too far. It also really sets the reader in-scene in a compelling way. But also, this beginning ends with a specific intention in mind: the character asks herself WHY (about 225 words in). This gives the story it’s shape and sets up our expectations that, in the end, the narrator will answer this question somehow. 

2. In the end, the question is answered and the narrator has acknowledged, to some level, her failure. She goes on, as a follow through, a third act of sorts, to reaffirm the ways in which she treats the old dictionary with care and, through implication, the ways in which she will treat her son better: “I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go farther than it can go (for instance to lie open flat on the table). I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” 

This ending drives home the character change and is perhaps the most moving part of the entire tale. 


Finally: 

While I realize these methods might not be useable in every story, there are lessons to be taken from it none the less. For one, maybe in a 5000 word story, a writer could deliberately set aside 1000 words for character change, and that these words would be distinctly internal and focused, but spread out throughout the tale. 

Also, there is a lesson in the directness with which the narrator handles her character change. To save space, it may be necessary to “tell” as much of the change as possible, to forgo “showing” some things you might have in favor of a different goal. It’s important to note, also, that so much of this story works through implication, and that is, to me at least, an interesting form of compression, requiring a deft hand. 

What do you think? Does a short story occur to you that shows a compelling (and complete) change of character? Are there other ways of compressing a character arc to fit into 5000 words or less?

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BASFF SAMATAR forestClicking the illustration to the left will take you to “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in the Mar. 2014 issue of Lightspeed. Clicking the cover will take you to the amazon page for JJA’s first Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume, which is where I read the story. 

I highly recommend the Best American. Quite a few of the stories were excellent. 

The Challenge:

Writing compelling characters can be majorly tough. Especially in short fiction, how do you find the room to really bring the character to life while also advancing a plot in some reasonable fashion? 

In a lot of stories, the answer seems to be to shovel exposition at the reader: tell us their whole life story, and pray it feels relevant. Or describe the character in minute detail, or give one key piece of backstory and hope it serves to flesh out the character so that we buy in. 

But those methods never really appealed to me. The former bores. The latter strikes me as reductive. Both hammer the pace until it completely gives in. 

So what’s a writer to do?

The Story:

There’s a lot to this story. A LOT. So much worth looking at. For one, it handles a lot of exposition in a complex way and makes it interesting. Also, it reads so smoothly, despite having really complex syntax and a musical prose quality. 

Also, twisty. At first its seems like this is set in a camp for wayward teens (it isn’t) in a world exactly like ours (it’s not) and that the girls are beginning a journey to heal emotionally and will ultimately lead fulfilling lives (nope). 

But the thing I wanted to talk about most, I found, was characterization.

We are introduced to a bunch of characters and they all felt so physically and emotionally separate and that fascinated me. 


The Solution:

In this story, Samatar seems to use 3 techniques to characterize. Firstly, the “expositional” type I mentioned earlier, although it is used just for one character and has a very gentle touch. Secondly, she offers precise and vivid descriptions of characters, usually invigorated with mood and voice–these are also used sparingly and are provided in sharp, short bursts. Not every character gets these treatments. 

Most of the characters, especially the campers, are characterized in a third way that I would call “reactionary.” 

Perhaps obviously, what I mean by this is that we get a huge glimpse into the characters simply in how they react to a core element of the story: puke. Okay, to spoil the first scene for you a tad: Cee jams a toothbrush down her throat to force herself to puke. Her friends watch on, and Cee encourages them to join her–she offers them her reasoning, although it’s suspect. 

Here are the reactions we get from the characters:

  1. Elle: At first says “Oh my God, that is disgusting.” But then she forces herself to puke “all of the sudden” (and with uncommon skill) in the sink beside Cee.
  2. Kate: “We have to stop her!” She grabs Cee and pulls her into a stall, frantically switching between “help me you guys!” and “Ew, ew, ew.”
  3. Max: “She’d believe anything”–Max responds at first with curiosity, and then with disbelief and disgust, screaming. Eventually, while trying to help Kate end this insanity, she gets so disgusted that she also pukes.
  4. Tisha (the narrator): The story is in first person, so we get a lot of her reaction. The key thing is “God, Cee. You were such an idiot.” But also, she starts laughing, apparently because she’s dizzy and afraid she’ll puke too. Then, of course, she gets so disgusted that she involuntarily pukes.
  5. Cee: When Elle begins puking, she nods her approval and says, “Good job, Elle!”
  6. 5 or 6 “other girls”: Many of these girls laugh at Katie’s antics trying to pull Cee into a stall, and say various things such as “Are you nuts?” and “Oh my God” and clutched each other. 
This isn’t the only episode of reactionary characterization we get in the story, but this one I think is the most useful and deals with more of the characters than the handful of others. 

Do you, reading this out of context, get as powerful a sense of these characters as I did? 

Two things that I think make this really genius-level material: 
  1. It’s puke. Even though the world she’s building is a little strange, just about any reader knows how they feel about puke and will probably have a visceral reaction. So this scene, these reactions, create a range that we can place our own reactions in. It’s a perfect barometer that allows us to compare ourselves to the other characters, almost getting to know them through analogy. 
  2. The “5 or 6 other girls” shows us what “normal” is in this world, which may be up for debate. It gives us a sort of control group to which we can gauge our own reactions and the reactions of the other characters. How does Max’s reaction reveal her idiosyncratic personality compared with the vaguer reactions of the other characters?
Finally:

One way to characterize (even in a strange world) is to create an event that readers can understand and allow the central characters to have specific reactions to them across a wide range. Spend time brainstorming a list of possible reactions.

But also, especially if the situation is strange, or the world is different than ours, make sure there is a control group that can show us “normal.”

Not only does this allow us to understand the characters better, it can allow us to engage further with the story, because we have to place ourselves on the scale. 

Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? If  you have any other strong examples of reactionary characterization, I’d love to hear about them. 

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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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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.