Friday, December 2, 2016

Last Meeting of Write the Story at the Ferguson Library

This week we had the last meeting of our wonderful 12-week short story class at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT.

As one of our last exercises, participants made their own writing prompt "tarot cards," posted here:

The Ferguson Library Tarot Cards

(my originals here.)

The library will publish the stories from our class, and will hold a book party in the spring. I'm going to miss you guys, but look forward to seeing you at the party!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tuesday Class Recap for 11/15

We weren't able to hold class in person today (looks like I have strep throat!), so we're holding an online discussion. In addition to talking about the first of our final revisions, I want to offer this exercise:

Christmas is still a few weeks away, but this beautiful prose poem has been on my mind this week:

"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas 

One thing I love about it is the way he allows his memories to come back to him on their own terms. This is an especially useful model for memoir, but it works, too, for fictional characters, when you're trying to get them to tell their story. 

Rather than laying everything out in chronological order, Thomas makes the act of remembering, of trying to figure out what to tell, part of the story:

I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. . .   . All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

At times he allows his personal version of the past to become completely unmoored from the factual:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills . . . 

This personal vision resonates with the image, within the story, of the coloring book he received as a child: 

a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I please, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.

By allowing himself to give us the harp-shaped hills, the sky-blue sheep, and all the rest, Thomas frees himself from having to tell exactly what happened and in what order, and gives us a vivid, personal rendering of his childhood holidays. Instead of plodding through year by half-remembered year, he follows his memories where they lead, and in this way paints a much richer picture. 


Read "A Child's Christmas in Wales." (Or listen to the author read it here.) 

If your character could paint and color the past any way they wanted to show how it looks to them--any way at all--fill the hills with wolves, put red flannel petticoats on the birds, make the sea sing carols--what would they show us? Set a timer for fifteen minutes and let your character speak.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Friday Optional Reading: Bonus

I want to add this short, apocalyptic story. It's about disaster, denial, and not being able to predict the future, and it's been on my mind today.

"The Invasion from Outer Space," by Steven Millhauser

Friday Optional Reading: Cheever Again!

This week's optional reading is the same as last week's: John Cheever's "The Country Husband." Most folks didn't get a chance to get to it last week—which was fine, as it was optional. But I'd love it if you could try to read it this week, and focus on the ending in particular: the paragraphs beginning with the lines "It is a week or ten days later in Shady Hill."

As you read, look for images and ideas he has picked up from earlier in the story. The elephants crossing the mountains is one. Can you spot more? 

And what about the tone of this section? I re-read it just now and was shocked to find no mention of gin in it! In the softened, sentimental, and achingly sad quality of the end--the section beginning with the line "It is a week or ten days later in Shady Hill"--I always get a strong sense of drunkenness--and I feel pretty sure that Francis Weed, like Cheever himself, and probably every other other suburban dad in the 1950s, would be a little drunk at that hour, so I was surprised to note that it doesn't actually say that in the story--the image of him holding a cocktail is so vivid in my mind. Isn't it funny how that can happen? What do you think of the tone? 

This is my favorite line: 

"The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread; but it hangs by its thread in the evening light."

 Here's the story again:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Step Off the Edge

It's the morning of November 9th, and I'm reeling from the unexpected election results. 

Last night as I lay awake at 2 a.m., I wondered if I should cancel all my writing classes' assignments for the next couple of days. I remembered another big event in my adult life that shocked so many people: 9/11. Afterwards, the idea of writing anything seemed pointless. How could I care about fiction in the face of national tragedy? 

I've lived and grown a lot since then, and one of the things I learned is the reason I didn't want to keep writing that year was that my heart wasn't in it. I wanted my novel to be "good." I would have happily settled for "acceptable." I didn't want to mess up. These things were foremost in my mind. Which is another way of saying that, in large part, I was motivated by fear, not by an honest openness, a desire to apprehend mysteries that don't have solutions, to feel and explore things that are uncomfortable. 

All of that meant that the thing I was writing that year was ultimately shallow, and so of course it didn't matter in the face of a national tragedy. Of course it didn't matter at a time when everybody was snapped back to the reality that we are frail and mortal, that our experts can't predict the future, that our leaders aren't always the grownups-in-charge we want them to be. That we are all standing at the cliff-edge of time right alongside those experts and leaders and everybody else, looking toward a future that's just a big empty space, with the wind blowing in our faces. 

I wanted a world, and a book, where things were controlled, reasonable, okay. But that is not what art is about. Art is about going to that place where you go when you almost die, and realize death's been this close all along. The place you go when you learn something that pulls the rug out from under everything you knew. The place where you're transported and split open by love and then discover the one you love isn't who you thought they were. The place where you're asking questions that don't have answers. 

This is true of fiction, even when it feels like you're just playing, making things up like you did when you were a kid, having imaginary friends and pretending they're real. The point isn't to approach it like a serious adult who knows exactly what to do and what comes next, but like a child standing before a vast and unknowable universe. If you're working on something, don't let today's events stop you. Let them remind you to do it honestly. Be vulnerable. Write about the stuff that hurts. Be scared, be thunderstruck. Be brave. Grab the hand of the person next to you, even if it's someone you made up, look out from the cliff, and step forward into that wild blue space.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for November 8

Today we continued to talk about revision. We discussed the logistics of getting rewrites done and read by the class in the next few weeks. Then everybody read their tarot card revision exercises which we'd written last week. 

We touched on last week's optional reading, Cheever's "A Country Husband, " then did some new exercises in stakes and goals, loosely based on the ones here and here

We also found ourselves in a fascinating discussion about objects, toys in particular, and what they can tell us about the characters who own, cherish, or in some cases, decide to let go of them. The homework this week is inspired by that: 

Set the timer for two minutes. Think of an object that was important to your main character in childhood. If your character is a child, it can be something that matters in the story's present.

Set the timer for ten minutes. Show your character interacting with that object, if they still have it, or if they don't, thinking about where the object is now. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignments: Stakes, Goals, and Omission

This week's reading is "A Country Husband" by John Cheever. There are so many angles from which we could approach this story, but since we'll be talking about stakes and goals in our next class, and how those ideas can help shape your revision, that's what I'll ask you to look for as you read. 

What is the main character's goal in this story? Does it change? 

What's at stake for him; that is, what does he stand to gain or lose depending on whether he achieves his goals? 

Just hold these questions loosely in your mind as you read and enjoy this great story of midcentury middle-class midlife crisis from the Ovid of Ossining

Read "A Country Husband" by John Cheever

And here's the essay mentioned in the last class: "Writing by Omission," by John McPhee, which will also transport you back to the upper-middle-classy part of the middle of the last century. One of my favorite parts of this article is this quote from Ernest Hemingway:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Have a look, too, at what McPhee says about the practice of "greening," which he learned in his days as a writer at Time, and which he now uses in revision exercises for his class at Princeton. 

Cover of the issue of The New Yorker in which "The Country Husband" first appeared: November 20, 1954

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for November 1

This week's class recap:

In Tuesday's class, we began by discussing where everyone is in the writing process, what challenges they're facing, what they've learned. We discussed individual strategies for moving forward, personalized for each writer and the stage they're at. 

Then we discussed revision in general: the importance of not judging an early draft, or letting it define your idea of yourself as a writer; of pushing through to the next draft; of reading over your work and taking an impartial look at what you'd like to change, without first needing to know how you're going to change it. We then did the tarot card exercise we'd done on our first day, but with a twist: this time, the cards were used to rewrite a scene. You can do it at home by clicking the link in the homework below.

The homework I gave was these three revision exercises. Those of you who aren't yet at the revision stage should keep working on your first draft. Save these and do them when you're ready. 

Homework: Revision Exercises

You Are Not Going to Cry (reading through your rough draft)

What's Wrong (the revision checklist)

How to Fix It (the tarot card rewrite exercise we did in class: use as often as you like!)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

November Classes

One more day to sign up for the final session of Year of Your Book at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY. The class is aiming for a (messy, imperfect) draft by mid-December. If you're doing NaNoWriMo, this would be a good support for you. Sign up here

Write the Story at Stamford, CT's Ferguson Library continues through November. It's full, but everyone can follow the assignments and readings here

Friday, October 28, 2016

Online Class: Write a Story Draft in Two Weeks

I keep forgetting to advertise this upcoming class: Nine Exercises Online.

Begins 10/31. Runs two weeks. $100. Start with nothing; end up with a full draft of a story. (Or a sketch for a draft of a novel.)

Will it be perfect? Polished? Done? NO. Will you have prose on paper, characters stirring, plot ideas laid down, gears turning so you're ready to head into a rewrite? YES.

Use the CONTACT ME form on the right to sign up.

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignment: Two Models of Failure

This week, an essay and a video on the importance of failure in writing: 

"Keyhole," by novelist Anna Keesey


YA author and scriptwriter Maureen Johnson with "Dare to Suck.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for October 25

Today we workshopped our last two stories! Everyone either has a full draft, or is closing in on one. Next week we'll begin talking about revision, as we move closer to the day when everyone will hand in a final draft to be published in a collection by the Ferguson Library.

Today in class we began working on a handful of short exercises I call "Snapshots from Your Subconscious." I love seeing what people come up with when they do these: beautiful and unexpected glimpses into their characters and stories.

This week's homework is to work on your revision, or on your first draft if you're still at that stage.

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for October 4

We had our first workshop this week! Over the next few weeks we'll be workshopping pages from everyone in the class. 

We also did this dialogue exercise:

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about making dialogue "crackle with feelings not directly expressed." We take a stab at that in this short exercise.

-Think of a scene you need to write, or rewrite, in which two characters have a dialogue.

-Write down the names of the two characters.

-What is the goal of each character in this scene? 
      Remember dramatic tension increases when characters have different, even conflicting goals. For instance, if they're both sitting at a table having tea, agreeing that the tea is good and the day is pleasant, you don't have much of a scene. If, as in the Atwood story we read last week, one wants sex while the other is plotting murder, then you have drama. 

-Take one minute to brainstorm adjectives that describe each of the two characters--both as they are in the scene (scared, joyful, etc.) and as they are in general (taciturn, bubbly, etc.). This is to get you thinking about the distinct sound of their voices. 

-Take ten minutes to write an exchange between the two characters. It's great to include gestures, action, etc., but keep the scene focused on the dialogue. 

Homework for this week is to read workshop pages for next week. 

Optional homework: Read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, which we'll read and discuss in class next week. Sketch a character arc in just one or two sentences, for each character in your story. Where are they in the beginning of the story and where do they wind up at the end? I urged everyone to remember screenwriter Scott Meyers' formula: Write every day + dare to suck = productive writing. (By the way, Meyers' blog is full of prompts, challenges, and exercises that prose writers can benefit from too.) 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for Sept 27

Today we discussed the concept of want vs. need, as illustrated in our hilarious homework reading: "Guy Walks Into a Bar" by Simon Rich. I set a timer for five minutes and class members brainstormed about whether this might apply to their main characters, and if so, how.

Then we did the "Nine-Minute Movie" exercise from Viki King's How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. This is not (obviously) a book about how to write short stories, but King's straightforward discussion of plot can be an incredibly helpful jumping-off point as you think about how to structure your narrative: how to make sure it has focus, forward movement, change, and stakes. 

To see some of these principles at work in a literary short story, we looked at Margaret Atwood's "Stone Mattress," which I read from in class today. I asked everyone to finish reading it at home if possible (an optional assignment) and to look for the ways in which she draws the reader through the story, raising questions (starting with the very first line) and making us crave the answers. 

In the context of this story, we also discussed the issue of "likeable characters," a perennial topic of discussion in writing classes. Is this protagonist likeable? Would you want to, say, be friends with her? Be married to her? Probably not. Does the character work? Yes, because she's three-dimensional; she's human, with buried pain, desires and plans, flaws and skills. (Even if some of those skills are a little . . . murder-y.) 

For homework, we'll be reading three people's pages for workshopping next Tuesday. I also urged everyone to finish a draft of their story. Sloppy, rough, quick, highly imperfect: all fine! We still have time to polish them. But try to get that super-rough first draft down this week. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignment #2

Here's a master of the short story form at the top of her game.

From our reading list: "Stone Mattress" by Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood.

Look at the opening paragraphs. What happens to you as a reader as you move through them?

 At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple. Take a breather, do some inner accounting, shed worn skin. The Arctic suits her: there’s something inherently calming in the vast cool sweeps of ice and rock and sea and sky, undisturbed by cities and highways and trees and the other distractions that clutter up the landscape to the south.
How's that for anfirst few lines? Prolific suspense author Lee Child has a great essay in which he reveals the simple secret to getting readers to keep turning pages.

What is it?

Pose a question, and make the reader wait for the answer.

That's it. He makes the point that it doesn't even matter whether the reader is personally interested in that particular question: just not knowing will drive them crazy.  In Atwood's story, the first line tells us Verna is going to kill someone. Now we want to know: Who? When? How? The next paragraph brings some clues:

 Among the clutter she includes other people, and by other people she means men. She’s had enough of men for a while. She’s made an inner memo to renounce flirtations and any consequences that might result from them. She doesn’t need the cash, not anymore. She’s not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her. Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal.
 But old habits die hard, and it’s not long before she’s casting an appraising eye over her fleece-clad fellow-travellers dithering with their wheely bags in the lobby of the first-night airport hotel. Passing over the women, she ear-tags the male members of the flock.

What do you pick up here? Do you think she has killed before? What clues do you get about the kind of person she is?

Look at this sentence, how many surprises it contains: "She's not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her. Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal."

She's not greedy . . . .but then we learn how much money she requires: "layer upon layer." That sounds like a lot. "So that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her." That actually sounds like an impossible amount of money. "Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal." And yet to her it seems only a "modest" accomplishment--she's accumulated all that money, and yet somehow, we sense, she's not quite satisfied.

And oh my god, how did she do it . . . what does this have to do with the killing that's been mentioned, the flirtations? What's it beginning to suggest to you?

"But old habits die hard . . . she ear-tags the male members of the flock."

And now we're on the ride. She's a practiced predator: one of these men will be her prey. This alone would impel me through the story: Who will it be? How will she kill him?

But Atwood doesn't stop there: every paragraph offers a new surprising information about Verna: her methods, her motivation. When she runs into someone she recognizes, her past collides with the present. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, this story plays with our expectations and raises the stakes at every turn.

Bonus: Notice the use of flashback here. Everyone hates flashback: it slows the story down, yet as writers, we often feel we need it to explain what's going on. We're constantly putting it in and cutting it out. But Atwood deploys it expertly. Pay attention to how she uses it to 1) tell a story with its own arc--with a question posed at the beginning, so we crave more flashback fragments to get the answer; and 2) contribute the building the stakes, the suspense in the present-time story of Verna on the ship.

Bonus Bonus: I just realized "Stone Mattress" has a twin in this story, which was assigned to me years ago by my favorite teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Deborah Eisenberg: "The Tattooer" by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. Both are about sex and power, and reversals of power. The Tanizaki is spare and beautiful and catches fire at the end; the Atwood floors me with its mastery of craft. What's your response to these two stories? 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Get Writing! This Saturday

I'm teaching a fun, generative one-day class with Arts Mid-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY on Saturday the 24th.

We have enough people to run this, so signup deadline is extended until Friday.  Click here to join us!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for Sept 20

Last week was about getting to the page and writing every day. This week, we start to zero in on the story we'll be writing between now and November.

In class, we did the Character + Problem exercise. At their heart, most stories are about one main character with a significant problem. The tale unfolds as she grapples with it.

Some people already knew the elements they wanted to work with. For those who didn't, I brought in my character cards and problem cards. You can do the same thing by clicking on the links here:


The assignment was to write about the character dealing with the problem, for ten minutes. Wrestling with it. Thinking about it. Discovering it. Whatever comes to mind. The writing should be prose: that is, not an outline or notes, but descriptions, dialogue, etc.

Next, we talked about screenwriter Billy Wilder's definition of the three-act structure: Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down. We did a very abbreviated version of this Exercise in Plot.

Finally, we did the exercise I call An Ending and a Letter.

This week's homework is:

Reading: Think about how sometimes there is a difference between what a character wants and what he needs. This story illustrates the difference; read it: "Guy Walks Into a Bar" by Simon Rich. Does this apply to your main character?

Writing: Write seven pages (that's double-spaced, 12-point type) of your story. Part of the beginning, middle or end, or the whole draft—whatever you like. But it must not be notes or outline; it must be a partial draft of the story. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignment #1

The class is on! We had our first meeting on Tuesday, and I enjoyed beginning to get to know everyone.

Here's a reading for this week:

Preface to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

In this essay, which appeared as a preface to his debut short-story collection in 1996, George Saunders describes the process of finding his voice as a writer, and balancing his desire to write with his need to earn a living and support his family. This is a favorite essay of mine, one I often send my students.


Here's a great video of him discussing how to love your characters. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Pre-Class Post #5

This is the last post before our class begins on Tuesday, September 13. I'll continue posting optional exercises and readings on Fridays.

As we approach the first meeting, I want to share a quote that has been on my mind this week:

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou

In the next few days, try to visit the page every day. Don't worry about whether what comes out is “boring and awful.” Also don't worry about whether you have enough time. (You never will.) Just promise yourself to show up, and see what happens.

I look forward to meeting you all! 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Pre-Class Post #4

Esteemed Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat is the recipient of the American Book Award, a MacArthur "genius" grant, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. This week's reading is a story that appeared in The New Yorker in 2008.

"Ghosts" by Edwidge Danticat

This story is set in Haiti, and its characters come from varied backgrounds—inhabit different worlds, even, although they often share the same spaces: restaurant tables, offices, interrogation rooms.

The main character, Pascal, wants to cross some of the lines that divide the cultures. He imagines moving to Montreal with his brother; he wants to produce a radio show to allow gang members to tell their stories.

At the end of the story, he is confronted with the fact that his life is both inextricably bound up with, and vastly different from, that of the gang leader Tiye. It is in one sense a story about identity.

On the relationship between her own identity and her writing, Danticat has said:
I think it would be crazy for me to think of my work as singly representational, like I represent all of Haiti or every Haitian, but I have always been proud to be connected to Haiti, to have Haiti in my blood and to rep Haiti, as the kids say, whether I was a chef, and taxi driver, like my dad, a seamstress like my mom or anything else. One person can’t speak for ten million people. I can only write from my perspective. And I hope it hits home for some people. And I know that perspective might be outright rejected by other people. So I’m not forcefully trying to be representational. I think it would be arrogant to say I’m representing anyone but myself. I think artists need that freedom to tell their stories. Or you’ll be shackled by everyone.
           —Edwidge Danticat interviewed in Origins Journal, 5/19/2016

Exercise: How does your identity shape your writing? Take ten minutes to answer this question.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

New Classes for September

In September I'll be teaching at:

The Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT. This course is already full, but weekly readings and exercises are posted here. Feel free to follow along.

The Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Year of Your Book resumes Friday September 16, and new members are welcome. Register here.

Arts Mid-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, NY. Saturday, September 24: A three-hour, one-day workshop to help you launch a new fiction project or jump-start an old one.  Register here.

Independantly: Locally in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, or by email. I work one-on-one with writers at every level. The cost is $65 an hour, which covers editing of about ten pages, including margin notes and either in-depth written comments, or an in-person meeting. (If you want both, just pay by the hour for the meeting.) For manuscripts one hundred pages and over, I offer a substantial discount depending on the extent of feedback wanted. Contact me for details.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Pre-Class Post #3

For this week, an exercise.

Go to Wikiart (one of my favorite sites), click on "Artworks," and choose "Random artwork."

You are only allowed to do this once. The challenge comes from working with whatever you're given.

Set your timer for fiften minutes and write a scene that takes place inside that painting.

It may seem impossible at first. Keep going.

The story may seem too obvious at first. Keep going.

Don't stop putting words on the page until the timer goes off.

P.S. The words don't have to be brilliant. They don't even have to make sense. If you keep going—writing anything—for fifteen minutes, you've succeeded.

Have fun!

Here's the painting I got:

Pierre Bonnard, Night Landscape, 1912

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Pre-Class Post #2

For this week, a reading and an exercise.

The reading is Michael Cunningham's brutal, beautiful "White Angel"

This story of childhood, drugs and tragedy in late 1960s Ohio became a chapter in the novel A Home at the End of the World, which was made into this movie.

In this story, pay special attention to the dialogue, and particularly what goes unsaid—the secrets the characters keep from one another. As John Garnder says in his famous dialogue exercise (see below), pay attention to what makes the dialogue "crackle with feelings not directly expressed."

For example, look at the conversation between the narrator and his mother, when he comes back into the house after seeing his brother and brother's girlfriend in the graveyard. In the linked pdf this is towards the bottom of page 31. What secrets are being kept here, exactly?

There's the obvious one: the narrator lies and says his brother Carleton is not doing drugs. But I would argue this obvious one is not the main secret—it's not even really a secret at all. "Lately police cars have been browsing our house like sharks," the narrator says, and his mother has noticed. She knows "something's going on." She tries to whack the answer out of the narrator with the vegetable brush and fails, but she doesn't really need him to give her the information: she already has it.

So what are the unsaid things that make this dialogue crackle? I would argue that not only are they far from simple and obvious—things like drugs, or a lover in the bedroom—they are so big and complex that they can't even be put into words: the feeling the narrator gets when Carleton sees him and winks at him in the graveyard; the narrator's preadolescent, absolute allegiance to his doomed brother that divides him forever from his parents, a division that repeats itself in every generation but which, in the late 1960s, and in this specific family, has its own terrifying and tragic flavor. I think the story as a whole answers the question "what are the unsaid things?" and there isn't really a way to reduce the answer to anything smaller than that. You feel it in every beat of the story, every interaction between the characters.

This is, in part, a story about two boys sharing a house with their parents but living in a completely different universe. There's a tragic climax, but the story is suffused with tragedy from the first page: it lies in the fact that there are so many secrets, so impossible to communicate that they form a vast gulf that separates all the characters from one another—a gulf that, in the end, seems to widen to infinity.


And here is the John Gardner exercise, one of my favorites, from his classic The Art of Fiction:

Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn't worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. Remember that in dialogue, as a general rule, every pause must somehow be shown, either by narration (for example, "she paused") or by some gesture or other break that shows the pause. And remember that gesture is a part of all real dialogue. Sometimes, for instance, we look away instead of answering.

I recommend setting your timer for ten minutes and diving right in. Remember this is an exercise: you can throw away the result if you don't like it! (But you might be surprised.)

If you're already working on a story, think about the next scene you need to write, and use this to do it. If you don't have anything going right now, start from scratch. Need ideas? Here's a list of characters and here are some problems you can give them. Have fun!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Get Ready for Write the Story @ the Ferguson Library

I'm so excited to be teaching a twelve-week course in short fiction, Write the Story, at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT! It will be held Tuesdays 11 to 1, September 13 through November 29. 

Thanks to a generous grant to the library, this course is FREE to students! Use the CONTACT ME button on the right for more info. 


From now until it starts, I'll be posting every Friday with a discussion of a story from the reading list, or a writing exercise.

Today's entry:

"Bloodchild," by Octavia Butler

Butler (1947-2006) was the recipient of the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur "genius" grant, among many other honors. Her feminist, race-conscious, literary science fiction pulls no punches as it challenges and expands our understanding of sex, culture and power. Speaking with The New York Times about her entry into the famously white-male-dominated genre, Butler said, "I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing." Read more about her here.

The story "Bloodchild" won the 1984 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and the 1985 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Read some of Butler's thoughts about it here.

One thing that fascinates me about this story is how uncomfortable it makes me, on how many levels. The strange and complicated relationship between oppressor and oppressed; the truths brought to light by the flipping of traditional biological gender roles; the queasy-making way the moral landscape rolls and shifts beneath the reader's feet as questions of consent, autonomy, love, family, and duty are shown from multiple angles.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about the difference between "literary" and "genre" or "commercial" fiction; and whether the former category should be held in higher esteem than the latter. (Here's a sample.) As a writer whose work has been classified mostly as literary, but sometimes as science fiction, this is a question that has long interested me.

I believe one of the most important things literary fiction does is critique and challenge existing social and cultural norms. If a work of fiction does this, it is literary, regardless of whether it also belongs to a genre.

By this measure, Butler's work is unquestionably literary. It is also science fiction. It is widely known and praised, but it is too unsettling to be "commercial." That unsettling quality is one of the most powerful things about it. Most of all it is that thing which, ultimately, matters most in a story: the voice of an author saying, from a deep and real place inside herself, "I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing."

Read "Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler