Friday, August 17, 2018

Where Do Stories Come from? Ramona Ausubel's Visual Guide

In the 14th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ramona Ausubel, author of Awayland (Riverhead Books), diagrams three of the ideas for stories in the collection: "The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following," "You Can Find Love Now," and "Awayland."

(click on the image for a larger view)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Todd Robert Petersen's Pyramid Problems

In the 13th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Todd Robert Petersen, author of It Needs to Look LIke We Tried (Counterpoint), explains how turning to an alternative concept of story structure liberated his work.

A couple of summers ago, while I was struggling to revise two key stories in a linked collection, my twelve-year-old asked me for writing help. He had to bring a story to workshop at a writing camp for teens. He had ideas but no structure for them. I wanted to help, but I was living under the shadow of an email I’d just received from my agent, who liked the last round of revisions, in general. “But somehow,” he wrote, in as kind a way as possible, “You’ve managed to make two of these stories worse.” I re-read those stories while I stalled with my kid, and I saw immediately that my agent was correct. They were a whole lot worse, but I didn’t know exactly what I’d done to them. Individually the stories seemed to work fine, but as a group, the stories were throwing off the pace and breaking down the flow of the manuscript.

So, even though my kid needed help, I wasn’t sure what to tell him. I didn’t want to admit that I apparently had no idea what I was doing, so I boned up on the basics and walked him through the standard stuff I’d taught and been taught. He got an earful of: exposition, inciting action, conflict, climax, denouement, and resolution. I told him how stories worked like little steam engines, and I even drew a little Freytag’s Pyramid and traced it over and over again with a capped pen.

When I finished my seminar and sent my son off to write, I started doubting everything I’d just told him. Almost immediately, I asked myself, “why does action rise? I mean, couldn’t it go down, or just fall apart?” Then I started wondering why the climax is always in the middle of the diagram, suggesting a symmetry that isn’t there. The more I thought about stories, the more I started seeing problems with the pyramid, and the more I thought about these problems, the more I realized that my rotten revisions were coming from my attempts to Freytag them. Because I was working on a novel in stories, having each story fully resolve at the end kept the book from moving forward. This made the next story strain to get going. I was creating entropy instead of velocity.

Now, this was a fine enough epiphany, but it didn’t come with instructions for what to do next. The pyramid story structure was so common and natural I couldn’t see past it. I took a couple fruitless passes, then I set the revisions aside to work on some Noh theater research for another project. This reading soon led me to the concept of kishōtenketsu, a narrative structure that comes from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature. The more I read, the more I wished I’d learned about this twenty years ago. It was the answer to my problems, but it was also a sad indictment of the limits of my education.

Kishōtenketsu: A different kind of structure
Kishōtenketsu is a deceptively simple structure, based on four narrative units or stages represented by the syllables in the term: Introduction (ki), Development (shō), Twist (ten), and Conclusion (ketsu). Instead of relying on Western ideas of conflict and resolution, kishōtenketsu is driven by change and contrast. It provides a much more natural perspective than Freytag’s mechanical one. The first two narrative stages have you establish and develop the story, and in the third, you invert or twist what's been established, very much like the third line of a haiku. After the surprise twist, the fourth unit brings unification, connection, and possibility. Resolution isn't necessary.

Straight away, I wrote these four stages on four separate note cards with a Sharpie, flipped them over, and with a ballpoint pen re-organized the worst of the bad revisions. I kept much of the same story material, but the new structure pushed everything in new directions as I hunted for a surprise rather than a climax. The characters deepened. The plot became more interesting. The pacing grew slower but more focused.

Once I moved onto drafting, I realized kishōtenketsu also worked at progressively smaller levels. This fractal quality helped me re-structure scenes, paragraphs, and images. I rewrote the other troublesome stories this way and sent in another round of revisions. A few weeks later, my agent wrote and said he liked them and wanted to send out the manuscript. Problem solved, but by that time I’d gone crazy, using kishōtenketsu for everything: syllabi, lesson plans, Tweets, and even blog posts. It seemed like there was no problem these four steps couldn't solve. Because life so often follows art, I've begun reframing the way I think of conflict and tension in my relationships at work and at home. I’m now revisiting a lot of what I thought I knew about telling stories. Perhaps this is my midlife crisis.

This year, when my son asked for help with his writing camp pages, I didn’t give him a seminar. Instead, I took a breath and said, “Okay, you need to set up your characters, then expand. Once you have everything established, give us a big surprise. At the end, connect the dots.” He paused for a second, then he told me how his story would go.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ruth Joffre’s Reading Habits

In the 12th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ruth Joffre, author of Night Beast (Black Cat), discusses bus books and finding the right reading balance.

Working a 9-5 has made me almost fanatical about making the most out of my time. On my lunch breaks, I do language practice. Instead of taking two buses to and from work, I build exercise into my commute by walking over half a mile to catch the second bus where it stops in Downtown Seattle. And I maintain at least one (if not two) bus books at all times. In the past few years, I have made an effort to read more science fiction and comics, returning to the genres that first excited me as a child, so I’ve been doing a lot of catching up.

What I read still tends to vary greatly (last month’s reading list included Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, Saladin Ahmed’s Black Bolt Vol. 2, and Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy—to name a few), but when I read a book depends largely on two factors: 1) when it becomes available at my local library and 2) if I’ve bought it, which usually means that I read through the first forty or so pages and then have to set it aside for a while to work through my time-sensitive stack of library books. I never forget to finish a book, though, and I always keep a record of what I’ve read so I can buy the books I borrowed when the budget allows.

All in all, I read about fifteen to twenty books a month. This is the right amount for me, I find. If I read too few, my writing suffers. That part of my brain that feeds on narrative gets tired of waiting for something new and starts picking apart whatever I’m working on, asking moronic questions like, “What if the novel is actually supposed to be an interpretive dance and the 80,000 words you’ve written so far aren’t supposed to be read but performed on the stage?” Whereas if I read too many, that same part of my brain becomes over-gorged and just wants to take a long nap instead of writing. I try to read just enough to remain inspired and engaged (and learn new tricks) without getting distracted from my primary goal (right now, to finish my novel).

This is not to say that reading is just professional development for me. On the contrary, it is one of my greatest pleasures, second only perhaps to the texture of a really good milkshake. In my reading life, I do all the things I never do in real life. I travel to places I’ve never imagined. I encounter new word combinations that excite me more than entire relationships have. Even when I know that I’m reading a book for research, it’s not about finding those little bits of information I can then use to fuel my own work. At least part of the pleasure of reading comes from knowing that there’s someone else out who took the time to find that information. To put those two words together. To imagine the impossible. I read voraciously to be reminded that I’m not alone.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Thomas Benz: In Defense of Elaboration

In the 11th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Thomas Benz, author of Home and Castle (Snake Press Nation), opines on the current reliance on shorthand, images, and symbols.

By its very nature, fiction helps cultivate and preserve language as the primary means of apprehending the world. Lately, however, I find myself wondering if the written word is under attack as never before from visual and social media, which also present ideas, but with a flashier immediacy. I don’t think this notion is simply nostalgia for yesteryear’s slower pace of transmission, which allowed for more in-depth forms of dialog. It is not out of mourning for the typewriter, the personal letter, for cursive handwriting and rotary phones, perhaps imbued with the aura of one’s youth. Rather, I wonder if our ever more sophisticated visual content threatens to compress and degrade the content of our speech.

Whether the attack comes in the form of movie special effects that often overwhelm the screenplay or a novel that comes with regular illustrations, the message is that words alone are not enough. Even our newspapers and magazines, once a bastion of sentences, punctuated with the occasional photo, are filling up with little films. Emojis, no matter how cute or detailed cannot transmit the rich possibilities of emotion contained in a well-chosen verb. At best, they are crude substitutes of expression, ones that require neither genuine thought nor accuracy. They seem to invite us to return to the days of painting on cave walls as a means of getting a point across.
Absolute bull: Then and now

Never has there been a time when it was more important to know the truth about what surrounds us. And yet concurrent with this, the means to deceive, based largely on the allure of speed and convenience, continue to multiply and gain acceptance. Through the use of memes that amount to slogans, and images that can be altered to any desired effect, the tools of propaganda and false persuasion have been sharpened. Hiding a lie has never been so facile, especially when the preeminence of words has been so undermined. By contrast, the use of longer-form writing usually offers many more clues about the substance and real purpose of a given point of view.

For over a hundred years, we have had cameras and movies, and there’s no question the artful use of both is a great boon to the world and the Internet greatly expands our horizons. The problem arises when the great rush of everything causes us to get ever lazier about how we absorb information, since passively watching a podcast or reading a bunch of acronyms is inherently less nuanced than a more elaborate exchange. While we all need a certain amount of convenience and entertainment, let’s be aware of the steady encroachment of oversimplified messages, which more easily lead us astray and threaten our discourse.

As anyone who has ever suffered through an interminable homily knows, longer is not always better. Yet the economy of a poet is not what I’m questioning. It is the imprecision with which complexity is often conveyed, as if a selfie could ever tell the whole tale. For example, nowadays literary fiction often seems relegated to the hinterland of a subcategory. Somehow it is just too difficult and requires an immersion that would cut us off too long from our incoming texts. The popularity of what is slick and swift and shallow appears to be on the ascendant.

Only language that is not artificially curtailed and remains relatively free of adornment enables the recipient to bring his or her full imagination to the encounter. A novel or collection of stories uniquely engages a reader to construct a world right along with the author, to infuse what’s been created with a unique filter, to make the abstract visible in one’s own mind.

I have no wish to assail the power of a sublime vista or the perfect frozen moment of a street corner, or anything else that can only be captured with the benefit of sight. And I’m not saying there is no place for Twitter or Instagram or the labyrinthine archives of YouTube. But just as taking pictures can be a way of outsourcing memory, we should be mindful of how easy it is to rely on simplistic methods of recording our experience and what gets lost in translation. If a “picture is worth a thousand words,” it cannot do quite the same thing as those words. In our rush to abbreviate, to go faster, to flood our senses, to live more and more, this might be something we should not allow ourselves to forget.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Dax Xenos on the Value of Reading the Dictionary

In the tenth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Dax Xenos, author of Mud and Stars (American Visionary Artists), discusses the importance of words.

When I decided the most interesting thing I could do with my life was to be a writer, I was working as a lifeguard on the beach at Key Biscayne outside Miami. There was plenty of time to read, so I started in with the American Nobel Prize winners—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner. These were my teachers. They taught me how to construct phrases and paragraphs from words, the power of nouns and verbs and how the right adjective was like “a blow under the heart” (Hemingway).

Words. These are the building blocks of writing, just as bricks construct a house. Learning writing is like learning bricklaying or carpentry. While you may possess a strong interest or talent, writing is a craft that takes years to master. Since I was going to learn the trade of writing, I figured I had better learn about words.

I read the dictionary. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, in three volumes. I made myself read 20 pages every day, and each word I found interesting I wrote in a spiral notebook, reducing its composite meanings down to one sentence. Nine months later I finished and had about 5,000 words in my notebook, and in my subconscious mind. Today I rarely have to search for the right word. It pops into my head when I think of the context and the implications in a story. Reading the dictionary is an excellent way to develop not only a knowledge but a love of words. I found particular affinity for the V words: verisimilitude, veracity, valor, victory, vanity, vanquished, vivacious, voluptuous, variety.... Per letter category, V seems to have more interesting words than any other.

I once met a man who read the dictionary for pleasure, and we found an immediate affinity for one another. At one time WBW had been one of the richest men in America, flew airplanes, played polo with Prince Charles, was married to a movie star. He told me he had owned at one time or another just about anything a man could possess, but his most valuable possession was the words he had in his vocabulary. He saw words as little encapsulations of man’s knowledge and expressed the notion that a person could elevate his or her station in life simply by reading the dictionary. Words would enable a person to perceive opportunities he otherwise would miss.

WBW’s ideas were confirmed by a scientific study done by the Human Engineering Laboratory sponsored by General Electric. It wanted to find out how to make its employees more productive and happier in their work. Researchers interviewed thousands of employees and found that human beings are born with certain innate talents and by being placed in jobs where these talents could be utilized, not only did the employees perform better, they derived greater enjoyment and fulfillment from their work. Then the researchers went back through the data a second time, looking for a single characteristic that distinguished high performers from the others and found it to be a large vocabulary.

When I first decided to become a writer, I had a certain natural ability, as my early school work demonstrated, but I did not really know how to write, nor did I have anything to write about. Rather than follow the career path typical of my peers, I set off on a lifelong journey to learn about writing and about life. Over time I learned how to craft sentences that resonated in the minds of readers and clearly conveyed my intentions. I learned about life and the daily exigencies human beings faced with varying degrees of competence, joy, frustration, anger, guilt, and the panoply of human emotions.

And I read. Everything I got my hands on, from great classic literature by Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Twain, to popular fiction, learning what to do and what not to do. I wrote stories, articles, ad copy, brochures, scripts, letters, anything in words I could get paid for to support myself and my family. The beautiful part about writing anything is the practice. You are making decisions, you are telling stories, you are creating a collaboration between your words and the mind of the audience. Whether you are writing text for a restaurant menu, a blog, a TV ad, a Pulitzer-winning play, a text message on a phone, or a great novel, the challenge is the same: using words to communicate.

Words clarify, describe, excite, offend, delight, entertain, encourage, entice….

Take some time and read the dictionary. It will be a journey you will never forget.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

How Sandra Worsham Finds the Magic Place

In the ninth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Sandra Worsham, author of Patterns (Third Lung Press), takes on the task of preparing to write.

Edgar Allan Poe drank. To get back to his place the next day, Ernest Hemingway's advice was to stop in the middle. Reading back over what he had written the day before would take him there. Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream, says to close your eyes and let your mind wander and then to make notes, with your eyes still closed, on index cards. Dorothea Brande, in her wonderful classic called Becoming a Writer, says the secret is to get up thirty minutes earlier and go straight to your writing desk, to write before you read the newspaper or drink your coffee. She says that when we first wake up, we are already in the magic place, that we should take advantage of that without allowing the outside world to come in.

And what is this magic place? It is, of course, the subconscious, that elusive magical brain hidden underneath our main brain. It is a place we cannot control, a place where our words flow freely, where analogies come naturally, where we meet characters we didn’t know we knew. And, until we are in that place, we shouldn’t try to write fiction. The first task of a writer is to find the magic place.

My method of getting there is to read. When reading a story from The New Yorker, I can read only a few paragraphs before I am there, before I put aside the magazine and begin to write in my journal. If I am reading a book that doesn’t bring my subconscious to the surface soon, I stop reading that book. Certain authors do this for me better than others. When reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I soon found myself writing about my own teaching career and the students who had been in my class at Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about my student Albert, who signed all his papers, “Albert the Zero,” and who I watched late one afternoon as he walked down the dark hallway, his right leg shooting out from the side as he kicked one locker after another, all the way down the hall. When reading the early stories of Dorothy Allison, I found myself writing about my Aunt Erma and the way her husband, my uncle, got drunk and began yelling and hitting until my aunt took all four children to spend the night on the pews at the Baptist Church across the highway from their house. The poetic language of Jamaica Kincaid summons my dream state so quickly that I find myself lost in the world of words.

Another Dorothy Allison story, “Gospel Song,” from her collection Trash, begins, “At nine, I knew exactly who and what I wanted to be. Early every Sunday morning I got up to watch The Sunrise Gospel Hour and practice my secret ambition. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a gospel singer.” This passage immediately puts the moving image in my mind, like a video gift, of my sister Linda and me sitting at the piano singing “Whispering Hope.” It is a summer evening, not quite dark, and Mama and Daddy have walked up the street to the Baisden’s house to ask them to put their phone back on the cradle. They are on our party line, and they often leave their phone off the hook. I sit down on the piano bench and open the old Broadman hymnal to page 466. Linda stands over my shoulder and sings soprano, while I sing alto. Out the screen door the cicadas hum the background base, like the solid sound under the melody of bagpipes. I feel my sister’s hand on my shoulder, her voice high above mine as I sing the bottom line “Whispering hope, whispering hope, welcome thy voice, welcome thy voice.” We are in that place that music takes you to.

And there you have it. I have found the magic place.