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.