The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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Monstrous Affections Tin House 61The Catapult











Another story I absolutely love is Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters, Because They Are Terrifying” which first appeared in Tin House 61 (which is where I read it) and then appeared in Monstrous Affections and IS available online in Audio form on The Catapult (linked above in the image) and starts at about 5:40. It’s even read by Alice Sola Kim, which is super cool. It’s an incredible and super creepy story, and everyone should read it. I’m going to talk about one of the elements that really got my attention: the style. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can. 

The Challenge: 

Confession time: I have a bad habit. What! Another one? 

Yes. Since I took a class on syntax in college, I have been obsessed with long sentences. This only grew worse after I read 100 Years of Solitude, of which I have a beautiful, forest green, hardcover, gold-leaf-paged copy. But what I found in writing long sentences was that, despite how incredible they seemed in other people’s stories, when I wrote them, they mucked up my prose. Sometimes they made my prose a challenge to read, or they unnecessarily obfuscated my purpose. They buried important details. 

Another problem they gave me was that a long sentence often just whisked away the authority of my prose. Long sentences felt wordy and flaccid. No punch. 

That’s two problems.

But then, I whined, how do other authors do it?


The Story: 

People. Folks. Go listen to this story. It is terrifying. But not gory–so no worries there. But just viscerally unnerving in the best way. Also, while you’re at it, subscribe to Tin House, because they publish some amazing stuff in such a huge range, plus it only comes out 4 times a year, so totally low commitment. 

Alice Sola Kim has outdone herself with this story. She was already incredible but this story is denser, more vivid, and more heartfelt than anything I’ve ever read by her. It’s about a group of four adopted Korean girls who miss their birth mothers, and decide to do something about it. That simple. Each character is so vivid on the page. It’s a really great study of how people who have a lot in common can still react differently to their lives. Nature? Nurture? 

This is not the place for that debate. 

But beyond a doubt this story boasts one of the finest styles of prose I’ve encountered. It has voice, authority, density, depth–all of this despite it’s long sentences. 

The Solution: 

Reading the story through a couple of times, a pattern becomes clear that I’m sure I’ve seen in other stories, and pertains to the issue of long sentences that obfuscate purpose and make prose confusing.

Each time Kim switches to a new scene and sets the mood, she does it using short sentences. This starts with the very first sentence, and is used throughout at every line break. Simple sentences like “There are so many ways to miss your mother” and “Mom skipped around” and “At first we found mom highly scary” give level of clarity. From there, each section seems to allow the length of sentences to grow, to build almost naturally until they become more complex, but then also each paragraph winds back down into short sentences for a punchy final moment to each ‘graph. Another key point is that the long sentences are usually in regards to things we basically understand on a human level: the lives of the girls, how they communicate with each other, etc. Paragraphs whose topics are hard to understand are written exclusively in short sentences: the explanation of the novum, the girls fears. 

Long sentences allow us to glean information subconsciously–subtle foreshadowing can be worked into a complex sentence, as well as characterization tidbits that are important to pick up on some level, but not hyper important to the story. But important bits, story mechanics, fear are all brought to the forefront with short sentences. 

So on to problem #2: how do authors use long sentences that have authority

Here’s an 88-word sentence: “You could even say that Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness if you counted the fact that she was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline–Mini for being the kind of girl who tries to look ugly on purpose and thinks it looks great (ooh, except it did look kinda great), her torn sneakers and one thousand silver earrings and chewed-up hair, and Caroline of the sweetly titled eyes and cashmere sweater dress and ballet flats like she was some pampered cat turned human” (Tin House 61, p. 17). 

Personally, I think this is a great sentence. A couple things are helping it along: First, the sentence is actually set up by the sentence before it, which introduces, in a more controlled way, the idea of “split consciousness.” Also, it’s good to note that the sentence largely serves to build and evoke the characters which is suitable for this long sentence because while the evocation is important to the story, the individual details are not so necessary to have ready. If it were written in shorter sentences, these details would take on strange emphasis. (“Ronnie was experiencing quadruple consciousness. She was both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline.) This is, of course, because each period serves as a point where the reader stops to recollect, to bring the sentence’s information into their understanding of the story, putting special emphasis on the final few words. 

But what makes this sentence authoritative? What makes it gripping? 

The main technique I take away from this is that the first part of the sentence before the em-dash actually structures the second half of the sentence. “…both judging and admiring Mini and Caroline” creates this sense of a long sentence because the second half has 4 things to expand upon, 4 activities. Because of this setup, we can follow the sentence even though it’s pretty dense with colloquialisms and compound adjectives. 

And that leads in to what I think really gives the sentence its authority: word density. 

So many details are crammed into this 88 word sentence. It gives us a full sense of two of the major characters in the story using a bunch of adjectives all clumped together in a way that wouldn’t make sense unless we were clued into the structure before hand.

Another thing that helps the sentence retain density is that while the sentence is long, the clauses/phrases are often short. Of the 88 words, 11 of them are conjunctions. This splits the sentence up into mini moments that allow us to pick up the material in little doses, in a kind of rushed way. 

Finally: 

Density of verbs and adjectives along with the short length of the clauses and phrases really sells this sentence. It’s important to take care to keep your clauses manageably short, and to build to your long sentences, rather than jumping into them right away.

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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F&SF  Earlier I suggested I might try to do a market analysis, and here is the first. Keep in mind, from a practical standpoint, this may very well be futile and useless. Still, I think as an activity it can be useful as long as you find a good, consistent method. This’ll get long, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Methodology

Only on the internet can something you say off-hand be lorded over you for the rest of your life. 

Anyway, 7 years ago on the F&SF forum someone posted this question: “How do you get that first story published?”

With this message, additionally: “The problem is that the rejection letter didn’t say what was wrong with the story. How can you ever get published when you don’t know what the editor is looking for in a story? Any suggestions as to how to get that first story published.”


And here was the best response from a seven-years-younger C.C. Finlay: 

“If you want to know what an editor is looking for in a story, you have to read their magazines or anthologies with an open mind. I led a workshop once, where we read and critiqued stories published by major magazines, including F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, and SciFiction. The only rule for critiques was that you couldn’t point out what was wrong with the story–you had to find what was right with it. What spark was there in the story that caught the editors’ attention and made them want to buy the story. Many of the people who embraced that idea, and looked for the things that worked in every story, are selling their short stories now. They also developed a good idea of what markets their stories were best suited for. For what it’s worth.”

So from that, my methodology will be to look in on what is right with stories in F&SF, see if we can pin down C.C.’s style using his own approach. “For what it’s worth.”


Data — The Stories of F&SF Jan/Feb and Mar/Apr 2016

Here are the issues, the stories, and the things about them that caught my attention. 

F&SF JAN/FEB 2016 (special issue, kind of–3 Mars stories)

“Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine, Novelet:
Far Future SciFi. 3rd person. Fascinating situation–the protagonists are stuck in an abandoned city on Mars because they decided to loot the place after the Mars settlement op shut down. They only survive because the main character is practical and gets stuff done. 

“The White Piano” by David Gerrold, Novelet:
Ghost story. 1st person. Has one ghost story inside another, a nested sort of story. It’s also sweet, being thematically about how a family deals with the loss of a parent. Strong tension throughout. The nested story is driven by the mystery of the piano that plays at night. 


“Telltale” by Matthew Hughes, Novelet:
Adventure fantasy. 3rd person. This story is part of a series of tales that F&SF has published. Stakes are given right away and they are big: life or death. Immediate mystery of “where is he?” and there is a slow build to the mystery throughout. A big turn at the start of Act 3. An ending that is very practical, to match a practical get-stuff done protagonist. 


“Vortex” by Gregory Benford, Novelet:
Far Future SciFi. 3rd person. Very fascinating microbial alien that is all one creature inside the planet. Global politics affecting interstellar research on mars. A set of practical characters trying to save this alien from someone else’s mistakes, and a simple but powerful moral in the end from the mouth of the protagonist. Scientifically accurate.


“Rockets Red” by Mary Robinette Kowal:
Historical SciFi set on Mars (I KNOW!)–that’s a good point on its own. 3rd person. A close and personal story, and short, with a small interaction between a man and his mother (on mars, in the 50s). 


“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North:
Fantasy. 1st person. Interesting take on what is essentially a zombie story. Begins with a solid, enticing mystery. A surprise ending pulled of believably. 


“Caspar D Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven:
Near Future SciFi. 1st person. Quite dark, but also, oddly, a little funny (in a nihilistic, end of the world kind of way–which is…a real kind of humor?). It’s a personal point of view on a big social issue (terrorism, media terrorism in this case to go along with the unending onslaught of media in this world). The ending is quite open-ended. 


“Robot from the Future” by Terry Bisson:
Near Future SciFi. 1st person. Strange and very visceral opening. Story driven by mystery. A classic genre plot structure: character has a problem, tries to solve it three different times. But the human interactions and the narration provide a lot of little surprises that keep the story moving. Strong characterization. Another one of those pragmatic protagonists.


“Squidtown” by Leo Vladimirsky:
Alternate History. 1st person. And impressive world and really great casual world building. Strong characterization, too, and the protagonist’s lack of a tongue creates some wonderful tension. 


“Touch Me All Over” by Betsy James:
Secondary World Fantasy. 1st person. A strong voice and experimental style. Character starts off with basically the worst thing happening to her: she loses her ability to pursue what she’s decided is the point of her life. 


“The Visionaries” by Albert E. Cowdrey:
Ghost Story (kindof). 3rd person, multiple. Plot driven by mystery. Interesting haunting–because it’s in a grove and because it’s haunted by what’s going to happen there. Multiple points of view in this story. Also, the end is an answer to the mystery but it makes the reader do a little work to figure it out, and it’s super satisfying because it brings together a lot of threads of the story while still remaining open-ended. 


“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” by E. Lily Yu:
Fantasy. 3rd person. Really sweet tale about a woman who wants to cure her friend of cancer. Interesting take on the unicorn trope. The end is sort of open. 


F&SF MAR/APR 2016

“The Liar” by John P. Murphy, Novella: Magical realism? Or strange ghost story. 1st person. A nice soft opening that allows us to learn about the lying power in a controlled environment. Then an introduction of a mystery that slowly builds to drive the story. Protagonist is honest and practical and gets stuff done. 


“The Ghost Penny Post” by Marc Laidlaw, Novelet: Fairy story/Historical fantasy. 3rd person, multiple A great twist of totally real world with fairy world, highlighted by the use of the postal system as the real-world element. Not sure I’ve ever seen a story taking this angle. It takes a very pragmatic man into a flight of fancy in a delightful way. POV switches to fairy characters with really lush descriptions of that world. 


“Red in Tooth and Cog” by Cat Rambo, Novelet:
Near Future SciFi. 3rd person. A truly clever novum (automated appliances that are abandoned and end up making an ecosystem in Central Park, and they can modify themselves) and a slow build in stakes. This story is really driven by world building, getting to know how this ecosystem functions and some characterization of the robots. Comes down to a simple choice being made by the protagonist. 


“The Language of the Silent” by Juliette Wade and Sheila Finch, Novelet:
Far Future SciFi. 3rd person. Protagonist is a newly-deaf linguist, which makes for an interesting POV for an interstellar first-contact story in which she has to translate. The protagonist, also, is of mesoamerican heritage and that plays a big role in the thematic content of the story. 


“A Mother’s Arms” by Sarina Dorie, Novelet:
Far Future Scifi. 1st person. Very close, very alien point of view that leads to a number of humorous moments. Clever use of language to world building like when the protagonist’s “stomachs” are hurting. A quite fast-paced and sad opening, paired with the rest of the story which is pretty happy, including a happy ending. Very emotionally engaging tale. 


“Belief” by Nancy Kress:
Near Future Scifi? 3rd person, multiple. Multiple points of view allow a thorough exploration of beliefs and their effects. Sort of attempts to weave science and spirituality. 


“Nanabojou and the Race Question” by Justin Barbeau:
Historical Fantasy/Fairy Tale. 3rd person. Very accurate historical reality with the fairy tale myth entwined. A dryly humorous voice. Main character mostly acts as an observer, but takes one critical action. A pragmatic main character. 


“Diamond” by Chris DeVito:
Far Future SciFi? 2nd person. It’s a story about an alien playing baseball and harkens back to racial integration of the sport. A very short tale with strong imagery. 


“The Silver Strands of Alpha Crucis-D” by N.J. Schrock:
Far Future SciFi. 1st person, plural. Very alien aliens, silver strings that dance in the sky. Incredible imagery throughout. A simple but powerful allegory about the ill effects humans have on their environments.  


“Golden Gate Blues” by James L. Cambias:
Noir mostly (with some meta fictional tendencies in a super hero world–a fascinating combination right away). 1st person. A strong voice and a bit of humor (again pretty dry). A great world, with solid world building and a cool novum. Driven mostly by mystery. A pragmatic protagonist. 



Analysis

That’s a lot of information to digest, I know. Give them a read and see if you find any of the patterns. 

A few trends I’ve noticed: nearly half of the stories (9/22) are mainly mystery driven (a few more have mysteries as minor elements) and nearly a third (8/22) have that classic-scifi “pragmatist” protagonist. Just a few more are in third person than in first (12 to 9 respectively) and just a few more scifi than fantasy (11 to 9). Near future scifi and far future scifi are nearly equal. Many of the stories are interesting just in the choice of POV character–either an alien, or someone with a disability that gets in their way, or a pragmatist. Nearly all of the stories are written in a plain and straightforward style but they also give more space to imagery than stories at other markets might. 

Some more general trends: the fairy stories, for the most part, are tied to very mundane, solid, real-world elements. Non traditional short story POVs stand a chance of working (3rd person multiple and 2nd person) as do the hard to place, slipstreamy stories, although they are few in number in these issues. Aliens in these issues, except for one story, are truly alien. 

Structurally speaking, the stories usually involve characters who want something and chase it, lose something and try to replace it, or have a problem and know how to solve it. Their plots are fully formed and idealized, usually with a good number of scenes (and scenes are longer, fully realized with definite beginnings, middles and ends). Stories in F&SF, rather than having an open ending, tend to “close with a click” to quote Terry Bisson. 


Although I think this magazine has more in common with classic Sci-fi than some newer mags do, I’d also be surprised if those magazine display the same breadth of genre. 


Anything to add? What is your experience reading F&SF or submitting to them? Do you notice any patterns above that I missed? Also, let me know if there’s a magazine you’d like to see get this treatment.

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cw_58_700Click the picture to the left if you’d like to read one of my all-time favorite Clarkesworld stories, from all the way back in 2011’s issue 58. I’ll be talking about how Sellar uses the Robot trope in this story, and I think you’ll find it fascinating. I’ll try to avoid spoilers to the best of my ability. 

The Challenge: 

How does one take an old old trope like this–a trope almost as old as the genre–and flip it on its head for a refreshing story? 

In short: I want to write a cool story about metal men!

The Story:

Word of warning: like a good many Clarkesworld tales, the opening of this story heavily resists being read. I think it’s necessary for the story, but you feel like you’ve jumped into the middle of a very murky pile of story and you have to do a bit of untangling as you go. But the thing is: this story lives and breathes for its final two paragraphs.

Everything beforehand builds just brilliantly to this rather horrifying end that strikes you right in the gut. 

“Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika” is a robot story like none I’ve ever read before. 

The Solution: 

If we’re going to talk about how to subvert the robot trope, we have to go well outside of the story for this one. An important place to start: history of robots. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to go digging through old manuscripts at Alexandria to get the gist of what’s been done-to-death for robots. See, I have this neat detail I’ve noticed: If you’re encountering a twist on a trope in a piece of fiction, it’s probably new and different, as long as the story is recent. If you’re encountering rules/twists for a trope from Hollywood, that “twist” has probably been done to death already. 

Case in point, especially relevant to us: Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” 

When Asimov developed these they were true to his work and a new take on robots that seemed to lead the trope away from its fiendish ways. The laws of robotics allowed Asmov’s a lot of potential conflicts and mysteries that his work might have otherwise lacked. But nowadays, so much of his work has been adapted for the screen, and stolen in various ways for other screen-based robot projects, that the very idea that “laws” govern robotic behavior has become cliche-riddled ground. 

Asimov adaptations are probably the go-to for understanding what to avoid in robot stories. So for another easy example: Bicentennial Man. If all your robot wants is to become a human, you best find some major way to twist up that premise. (Great movie though, right?) 

Beyond that, on to the idea of a “post-human” world. Give robots to the cyberpunks and we have Terminator

Movies are a gold mine for studying old tropes to see where the danger zones are. Interesting thing about Sellar’s story though is that it riffs off of all three of the ideas I listed below: robotic laws, robots wanting to be human, and a post-human world. Still, it’s obvious that Sellar is aware of these danger zones and really twists the ways that they are used. Here are the ways he does it: 
  1. Voice: The omniscient narrator of this story has such a strong and musical voice. It’s a rare thing, I think, to have a story about robots and humans that seems not to be from the human or robot POV and doesn’t take sides. Ultimately this results in a kind of distance, which is normal for robot stories from the mechanical point of view. But the beauty of it is more like what we’d expect from the falling human civilization. Plus, the middle of the story actually has some sheet music supposedly composed by robots, which you can actually listen to on the site 
  2. Sheer scope: In most robot stories, we’re used to seeing the point in time when the robots rebel, or we see the time when nearly all humans are wiped out. This story covers that whole range from the building of the first robot to the point where robots begin to mourn their lost creators. It skips huge sections of time with no intention of summarizing what’s happened between. Related to the time scope, it also covers a swath of international ground: France, Japan, the pacific ocean. It shows how much of the world ends up. 
  3. Clever references: In a strong thematic moment for the story, Sellar makes a nod to the Three Laws in this sentence: “It is unnecessary to remind them that the mechanika did not end up throwing off their shackles, and inheriting the earth, by breaking the rules of human power, but by observing them, by learning and following them carefully.” 
Finally:

Seems to me that Sellar is deeply aware of the source material he pulls from. An odd contradiction to working with tropes is that you have to both work within the rules people are aware of (so that they can recognize these creatures as robots) but also subvert those rules in new ways (so that you can keep a reader’s attention, so that you can surprise, so you can give new life to this trope that you adore). In this story I think Sellar takes the robot story about as far as it can get before it becomes unrecognizable as such, but he keeps it together and, in the end, really brings it home. 

In that way, it’s an extreme subversion. 

Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts on subverting tropes or anything you have to say about robots, on the screen or off. What other methods can be used to take old stories and breathe new life into them?

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CW116 khawClick either image to see either story in this post, which will be a sort of comparison to talk about openings. To keep things super tight, I’ll just be reading the first two paragraphs of each and comparing them, so check out the first two paragraphs of each if you feel so inspired. As always, I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible (which should be easy this time around, because I haven’t yet read the rest of the stories). 

The Challenge: 

While maybe not as hard as ending, beginning a story presents a lot of challenges. For my part, when I start a new story, it’s vital that I find the just right opening and I’ll often has as many as 12 false starts before my eyes decide that I’ve nailed the right place to start. It makes me curious, then, what other openings do and why my own opening seem to fail me so often. What about that final opening launches me into the story?

So I thought I’d take a look at two openings that got me engaged and made me want to read more. 

The Stories:

Two stories that could not be more different–the authors don’t have much in common, and neither do the venues. The opening of Robert Reeds “The Universal Museeum of Sagacity” and Cassandra Khaw’s “The Bones of the Matter” take very different strategies, but both of them made me wonder and pulled me in. 

Go read them now, if you intend to.

The Solution:

Cassandra Khaw’s story spends its first paragraph philosophizing about the power of mothers. It’s 3 sentences and 2 of them are syntactically similar, giving that sense of something building that repetition offers when done well. From the end of the first sentence, I’m not sure where this idea of “witchcraft” is going and I’m delighted to find out, in the second sentence and further in the third, that the story is building natural motherhood as something akin to witchcraft. Even though it’s a small surprise, it was enough to convince me to keep on going with the story.

And it turns again into the second paragraph, reverting back to the first line by essentially saying “no actually, this story is going to be about magic mothers”–it’s a push and pull on the micro level that’s really charming, the narrator contradicting herself. This paragraph continues on with little oratory on why magical mothers are so dangerous in their sixties but this paragraph is grounded with two real characters (Mei Fong and her mother) so that we know the story is beginning. Finally, it pushes us right into dialogue. 

Two things I think this opening is doing really well to pull me in: 1) some really pretty words and 2) a great sense of tension and conflict through the push and pull of these first couple paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the Robert Reed story begins with summary. A lot happens in these first two paragraphs, all very rapidly–an insurance man in Boston gets married, gets divorced, moves to the mid-west, gets married again, has two children, and has repeated visits from his first wife. It’s a characteristically bold opening. Why does it work better than other summary openings? Like in all things, the most important thing you can do is engage your readers. 

Andrew Stanton (writer of Wall-E and Finding Nemo) says not to give your audience 4, give them 2+2. That rule is key to many Pixar stories. You can only get audiences to invest by forcing them to invest work. 

Here are the lines in which Reed gets us invested: “Maddy was my mother’s aunt, but only briefly” and “Those were my mother’s cousins.” As easy as the solution is–Walter is the narrator’s mother’s uncle–it’s just twisted up enough that I had to stop and think “wait, what does it mean, only briefly her mother’s aunt? Who’s telling this story? Why does this matter?” It’s this little puzzle at the beginning that charmed me into swallow the pill of exposition. As in many stories though, it’s the kick-off of the puzzle that really got me into it, and that stars at the end of the first paragraph with the revelations about Maddy’s visits. The second paragraph sends us off into the story with a final bang: “Which is a story unto itself.”

Finally:

These two stories take truly different approaches on one level, but on another, they are both involving us in a puzzle of sorts right away. In Khaw’s story, it is the puzzle of what magic is and who has it. In Reed’s, it’s the puzzle of “mom’s aunt + mom’s cousin = Walter is mom’s uncle”. If I dug deeper, I wonder if I’d suddenly find puzzles everywhere, like Jim Carey and The Number 23. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out. 

Time to go read the rest!

What do you think? Anything you agree with? Disagree? Let me know what stories have openings you really enjoy. 

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or tell me about one of your favorite opening paragraphs and why it works for you. 

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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 
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.