Friday, October 21, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignment for 10/21

For Tuesday's homework, I asked everyone to notice how Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" contains no flashback or exposition, and yet still manages to give us a sense of the arc of the characters' relationship—past, present, and possible future. It does this with just a few pages of dialogue and description.

This week's Friday assignment is an exercise: 

First, find something in your current writing project that you have conveyed using flashback or exposition. What does that mean? 

Flashback is where we jump from the story's present to a scene in the past. E.g. "It was six years ago when he had first walked down that dusty street, breathing in the dry air, squinting against the sunlight."

Exposition is where the narrative voice pops out of the present moment to explain something, without using scenes. E.g. "They had always been close, ever since they were kids, but after the fight last Thanksgiving things had changed, and now it seemed like she never visited or even called anymore." 

Flashback and exposition can have a place in a successful piece of fiction. We talked about this when we looked at Atwood's "Stone Mattress." But often the reader feels popped out of the story when the narrative flow is interrupted with explanations or news from the past. And too often we, as writers, are tempted to use these devices to get out of doing the work of figuring out the past's real impact on the present--on the actual story we're telling. 

So taking away those crutches can be a great exercise. For example, if you're not allowed to tell us--with exposition--that the characters haven't been getting along, then you have to show it--through their words, their gestures, what they notice, what they choose to talk about and what they choose not to say. In general, that is a lot more powerful.

This week's exercise is to look at that scene in your story where you've used those devices, and quickly note what information you were trying to convey. ("They used to be close, they had a fight, now things are strained between them.") Now set your timer for 15 minutes and write a new scene that conveys that same information (or at least some of it) while staying rooted in the present and in the concrete. That is, things your character can hear (including dialogue), feel, smell, see in the story's present.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for October 18

Today we workshopped two more stories. In looking at both, we found ourselves discussing the question of how to fit a complete narrative into a short space. How much time can be covered in short fiction? How can information be compressed /How do we decide what to leave in and what to cut out? 

I read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" aloud in class. We talked what's said, what's unsaid, what happens between the characters, what we imagine their future will hold. 

For readers who aren't familiar with the subject matter, it might be helpful to know that the operation the couple discusses in this 1927 story is an abortion. It was not a rare procedure (as the man in the story points out) (and as we know because abortion has existed in every time and place in history), but it was illegal and, of course, carried risk. 

Homework this week:

-Read the next two stories for workshopping. 

-Re-read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." This time, notice how there is no flashback or exposition. Everything takes place in the present moment—during a 35-minute conversation. We hear dialogue. We get visual description of what's there, right now, in front of the characters' eyes. And yet the story tells us so much about the whole relationship--its past, present, and possible future. 

How can you use this principle to improve your story? Look for a section of flashback and exposition that take us out of the present moment. Is there a way you can give us this information through action and dialogue, without stopping the narrative to give backstory? 

-Also Read Hemingway's "Indian Camp" and Grace Paley's "Wants." Like "Hills," these are both super short five-minute reads. They cover longer time spans than "Hills" in a very short space. How do they do it? Come ready to discuss these next week.

-(And here's a NY Times Op Ed I mentioned about Bob Dylan's Nobel win for anyone who's interested. This sums up my own view on it, but not everyone's—there has been a lot of debate in the literary community.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Stone Soup Principle

Recently I was trying to explain something in one of my classes that I think of as the stone soup principle, something that has helped me quite a bit in writing, and I was casting around for a way to articulate it. Now my friend Emily has come out with this essay that illustrates it perfectly. 

“I dare you to write a fifty-thousand word potboiler in the next month, her husband Tom said to her a couple of years ago.

Remember the story Stone Soup? In it, a hungry stranger comes to a village and offers to make a wonderful soup, enough to feed everyone in town, using only his magic stone. All I need is a big pot and some water, he says. A huge cauldron is brought to the middle of town, a fire is lit, and he drops in the magic rock. Everyone in town gathers around to watch. It will be ready soon, and it will be the best soup you've ever had, he promises. But you know what would make it even better? If we just added a few onions. I can give you onions, says one villager, and onions are added to the pot. “This will make it almost perfect, says the stranger. The only thing that would make it even better is if we had a few potatoes. I have potatoes!” says someone else. And so it goes, until every villager has contributed something to the pot. And then the soup is done, enough to feed them all. Made from nothing but one magic stone. 

Tom's dare was the stone. Emily started the book, but somehow added a few more than 50,000 words . . . then more. She came up with a potboiler-y plot, but she put in just a little more effort and love than was strictly required . . . then a little more. She worked on it for one month, and then kept working on through the next, and the next. At the end of a year, she had The Book of Esther. Not 50,000 words, not a potboiler, not drafted in a month. But that magic stone is what got it started. 

I offer Emily's essay as inspiration for anyone who's trying to start or work their way through a draft of a novel or a story: my short fiction class at the Ferguson Library; my "Year of Your Book" class at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center; and everybody else who's out there trying to make that soup. 

How a Dare Morphed into a Full-Fledged Novel, by Emily Barton

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Reminder: Two Classes

One-day class this Saturday, 10/15: Get Writing at Arts Mid-Hudson. Great for anyone working on a novel or story, or who wants to start one.

Starting later this month: Nine Exercises Online. $100, but just $75 if you register by 10/15. Short story class: bring your partial draft, or just your crazy ideas—wind up with a full draft in two weeks. Click the CONTACT ME button on the right to sign up now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for October 11

Today we workshopped two more stories.

We also did an exercise inspired by Blake Snyder's screenwriting book Save the Cat, in scene shaping. Snyder talks about how every scene must have emotional change (represented by the symbol +/-) and conflict (represented by the symbol ><).

Snyder likes to put each scene on an index card. Each card summarizes the scene in a sentence (e.g. "Bob confronts Helen about her secret") and has a note about the +/- ("Bob starts out hopeful, ends up disappointed") and the >< ("Bob wants to know the secret; Helen can't tell him").

This can be helpful for prose writers, too. I asked the class to think of a scene that they needed to write, or rewrite, and make those three notes: One-sentence summary; +/-; and ><.

Then I set a timer for ten minutes and had them quickly draft the scene.

We talked about how if you have a scene that seems not to be working, or that feels loose or unfocused, it can really help to apply this exercise to it.

Homework: Read two more workshop stories for next week. Continue to work on your rough draft if it isn't finished, or begin to revise it, if it is.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignment for 10/7

A story from our reading list: "Monstro," by Junot Diaz.

One of the many things I like about this story is how it effortlessly spans the boundaries between literary and genre fiction. It's also social commentary: Like all the best science fiction, it holds a mirror up to our own society. 

In it, a devastating epidemic begins in Haiti, and leads to the end of the world. We learn this early: the third paragraph begins, "These days everybody wants to know what you were doing when the world came to an end." So, as in Atwood's "Stone Mattress," we know right away where this story is headed—and that's one of the reasons we want to keep reading. 

Of the origins of this story, Diaz says, "A couple years ago I got to thinking that our world has so many blind spots, so many places and people it intentionally doesn’t want to see—if some menace began to coalesce in these spaces, our own unseeing would, in fact, blind us to the danger. It struck me that many of these very spaces were also the most neglected, mistreated, vulnerable areas of our world—areas on the global body where an opportunistic infection could and would take root—and from there the story began developing."

I also love what he says about his choice to allow this story to occupy the realm of science fiction: "It just happens that there are people that want to build real-ish worlds to address reality; others of us want to get at reality through unreal worlds. Different strategies, same goal. When I write what I long for is not more realism or fiction but more courage. That’s what I always find myself short on and what I have to struggle to achieve in order that the work might live."

Read the rest of his commentary here

Read the story: "Monstro" by Junot Diaz

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Coming up in October

Happening now: You can continue to follow the assignments and readings for Write the Story through 11/29. 

October 15: Get Writing at Arts Mid-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY. One day: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. $100

October 28 through December 9: Last session of Year of Your Book 2016 at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY. In the home stretch of drafting your novel? Join us! Newcomers welcome. Fridays 1 to 3 p.m. $320

October 31 through November 11: Nine Exercises Online

My Nine Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story (or Give You a Fresh Take on an Old One) are designed to take you step by step through the drafting process. In this course you'll do them as a group, and share the results. I'll read and briefly comment on everything you send.

The goal is to use daily short assignments to complete a rough story draft in two weeks. Kind of like a mini NaNoWriMo, but for stories! 

You can use something you're already working on, or start from scratch. Bring your desire to write; and your fellow writers and I will supply motivation, inspiration, and support.

Weekdays 10/31 through 11/11
Cost: $75 if you sign up before 10/15; after 10/15, $95
Use the CONTACT ME form on the right to sign up