Monday, October 30, 2017

Dialogue, Character, and Setting

What makes dialogue good? Let me answer with another question: Do you feel like your words, when you say them, are real?

Of course. Once you can answer why that is, you’ll know for sure. Some people say dialogue has to feel real and mimic the way that people would speak normally, but that’s reductive advice. Dialogue should seem as if the characters are saying real things, but they don’t have to say them in real ways. Everyone on this planet speaks a little differently, everyone, and in the worlds you create in fiction, people speak however the hell they want.

However I want? No! Characters will speak the way they want. A good character has their own way of doing things, and even if that way is supposed to seem familiar, it’s their way.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sullivan. You make it sound like characters, my characters, have free will. Yes, and a lot of writers will tell you things like, “I don’t even know why, but my character just did it” and you, like me, may feel inclined to think of these people as a little crazy.

So, if I am trying to make a character better, I should give them free will? You don’t just give them free will. You believe. Believe that your characters believe what they do. Think of the driving force of fiction as independent of you.  And keep in mind that a well-written setting will make your reader feel as if they can see, smell, hear, and touch. Maybe taste. Maybe they can imagine it with their other senses. A good setting feels like you want readers to feel. In the best cases, the reader can imagine living there, no matter how bizarre. Science-fiction and fantasy worlds can be so engrossing in this way and it has a lot to do with geography and culture.

Culture? It has to exist in a story. It can be an echo, it can be a central theme, but people have culture. Culture—politics, economics, art, philosophy—shapes characters. It shaped you. It even shapes your writing. Be aware of it. What things does your character do? Can you think of an occupation, or a country, or a religion? Any little feature that you can expand on?

I feel like I’d run the risk of misappropriating some other culture that way, if I set my story somewhere else, or if I tried writing a character who, say, follows a religion I don’t. Good point. Do research. Be reasonable with how much you try to say about a character’s culture. Don’t let it determine your character, but let the setting and all its components play their due part. Be respectful. Have some trustworthy test readers give you feedback. Listen when they tell you things wouldn’t happen a certain way, or things don’t make sense. It’s hard thinking of character backstories sometimes. Now, get down to the nittiest and grittiest of it all. A lot of writers tell you to know your character completely before you even write, but that can choke creativity. I don’t always completely craft the character beforehand, instead letting the setting and plot and even style flesh out the character.

What about letting my character be the driving force behind the setting? Not like a character driven plot but like everything the main character does gives the setting detail. I can see a way or two I could manage that, something a bit more nuanced than a person literally thinking something into reality, but that’s an experiment for you to try. It sounds weird. Weird is good.

We write characters for readers to empathize with, or not, right? So, it’s to keep the reader on their side. But maybe also because their reality means something to them. Believing what they do lets them do what they do with…sanity? The illusion of sanity? Sanity. Yes. Solid identity. Now you’re getting into psychology here. Isn’t psychology different everywhere? What does it depend on?

I don’t understand. People think differently, have different expectations depending on where they live. To use a craft term, the stakes will be different. Water is scarce in a desert, but just as essential to survival. If your character lives in a desert, water is a bigger concern, generates more stress. We live in Florida, the biggest anxiety we have about water is whether or not it’s going to rain.

The point you’re trying to make, if I understand you, is that what’s at stake has to do with a character’s environment. Why didn’t I just say that?

No one can stop you from rambling, is all. What?

Nothing. Hmph.

Jonathan Sullivan owns a tiny giraffe, one zombie chicken, and is a tornado.

Monday, October 23, 2017

These Bodies Are Not Metaphors: On Writing Sexual Assault

            With the now seemingly consistent deluge of harassment, assault, and rape allegations dominating the news cycle, and the subsequent attention fleetingly paid to the tireless activists who have fought to bring awareness and solutions to these issues, it would be willfully foolish to deny the influence any given depiction of rape has in our cultural conversation: pop, personal, or political. Rape, assault and trauma are established pins of all that we consume: literature, art, television. The tropes du jour often use sexual violence as shorthand for the trial-by-fire background story necessary to convincingly build a Strong Character (we see this often in science fiction, fantasy, but it is equally pervasive, albeit quieter, in fiction of most genres). Of course, the most extreme version of this is the Rape/Revenge trope, a holdover from 1970s exploitation films, that has resurfaced in surprising, more complicated ways. Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max: Fury Road, are successful examples, to name only a recent few.  Whether these depictions occasionally hit the mark of a realistic trauma survivor experience is decidedly beside the point: survivor characters’ rapes often become their entirety.
            When past experiences of sexual trauma are used as passive expository blurbs to fill a half-flat character’s background, they can read as insincere or gimmicky. To remedy this, pop culture has swung massively in an opposing direction that demands rape be depicted as both heinously violent, committed only by the criminally depraved, and that survivors be wrecked so essentially, to their very core, that they are oftentimes incapacitated by fear or infatuated with vengeance. These are, of course, the extreme examples, but they overshadow the thoughtful, nuanced depictions of fully rendered survivor characters in our zeitgeist.
            And, here is where the writer’s dilemma lies. Rape is real; it is pervasive, so this demands that portrayals of assault and harassment be purposeful, intentional. But, depicting it as an exhausting demon with the power to coerce a character’s every action, inflicted by soulless predators, does a disservice to both our characters and the cultural conversation at large. Rape is not a metaphor for other kinds of violence – not global warming, not thought policing, not genocide – it is a violence of its own. Rape is not the stand-in for an interesting background story, like a summer spent campaigning for a third-party candidate or being raised on a farm. So, when we mean to engage with sexual assault as a plot device or a character’s background, we are not simply adding texture to a form ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ archetype. We are building a character that has a full life both before and after their assault. These bodies and places and conflicts might be creations all our own, but choosing to engage with sexual assault means that we must consider the real bodies, the people, that are implicated by our words. We owe them nuanced, researched depictions.

Caitlyn GD is a second year Fiction candidate at FAU. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Voicemail Poems, and Potluck Magazine, among others. She currently lives in South Florida with her loving partner and two indifferent cats. She wants you to know that Die Hard 3 is the best Die Hard.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Keep it Inside: Argument for Silent Character Minds

If observing each other’s thoughts were a normal part of communication, society would have crumbled in its infancy. The food your ancestors stashed away for the winter would be common knowledge and gone, ailment and weakness within families would be public domain and liability, and any ambitions about climbing the social hierarchy would be flushed out and likely suppressed. The status quo would achieve permanent status. Nice for those in charge, but what about you? What about the protagonist of that story you’re writing? Can there be a story, a chance at change, if the actions taken were known before being taken?
            Maybe. But it wouldn’t be very interesting.
            Concealing the interior thoughts, especially of the first-person protagonist leading your tale, is essential in retaining tension and interest in the story. This is not only because mystery=suspense=climatic jibberjabber, but because revealing interior thought of any character pins their limbs to a rubber-lined tray and forces participation in a dissection of the story’s why, almost always too soon. If characters are plot, then the thoughts of those characters run the risk of selling that plot out before it blooms.
            Consider film. Unless done in some kind of humored irony, character voice-over narration is a scarce phenomenon, and is usually only done to ground the observer early in the plot. Outside of this, film relies on setting, events, and acting to advance the plot. Characters don’t borrow the camera and spill their personal beans; they keep those beans canned and act upon them. In fiction, it’s too easy to supply protagonists with access to the reader’s mind and move the plot through that connection, but doing this cheapens the reading experience in the same way an over-zealous Star-Wars fan can ruin the most recent installation by pausing and explaining the subplots underlying what’s happening on the screen.
            How to guard against this is simple: forego the interior. We can’t read each other’s thoughts in life, so we read word choice and tone, body language, and overt concerns. The same practice should be applied to writing fiction. In Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the developmental stages of the plot pass inside Louise’s mind. While the reader is given glimpses into her internalization of her husband’s death, these moments are used to explore an unknown rather than establish some static truth of the story, and physical effect comes with those thoughts:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearful. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air. 
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back[.]
There is physical, observable ramification to the thoughts. They are slight and personal, but her state of mind is established in these moments through her body’s expression. Her elocution doesn’t express her feeling, only what she’s experiencing. The reader is made to interpret her response to these thoughts and derive their effect from them, and that is what they want. Silver platters get returned.


Jason Wilson is a third year MFA candidate for fiction at Florida Atlantic University.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Writing within A Community

I had never been in a workshop (or had my pieces workshopped) before I got into the MFA program. Naturally, I entered the program nervous. I didn’t know what to expect or what was expected of me. Besides a few friends and family, my stories didn’t have much of an audience. I didn’t know how my work would be received.

Everyone is protective of the writing they create and I was too. Initially, I struggled to share my work out of fear of it being misunderstood or misinterpreted. That was something I knew I had to learn to work around, and the program helps you do just that. The workshop class is a small group of approachable and focused people whose main objective is to produce good writing. Working with a group like that helps build confidence to share your work in order to make it better. Having other people look at the development of your writing over a period of time generates a variety of perspectives. The workshop group constitutes people from different backgrounds who produce different readings of your text, which I find most helpful. The writer figures out so much of their own writing style when they view their stories/poems from other people’s eyes. For example, having other people workshop my pieces over two semesters helped me discover my strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to my advantage. Something that I wouldn’t be able to see by myself.

I’ve become more aware of my audience now than before. I’ve never written for an American audience and so workshops from time to time facilitate my understanding of the American publishing world: what kind of writing is successful, how to develop a good piece of writing, etc.

One major thing the MFA program has taught me is to love my work while also maintaining a distance from it. Just enough distance to be able to revise and continue working on it after receiving feedback. Revising a story or poem was not my strong point; it often felt like I was cheating on my first draft by altering or editing it. But over the course of my first semester, I realized the importance of going back and revisiting works that I thought might be ready for the world. Editing is still painful; cutting full chunks out is not the easiest thing to do. For that, I’ve made a folder for all the edited portions I take out of certain pieces, in the hope of using them somewhere else.

Writers are always growing in terms of their voice and their writing style, and workshops are a good place to learn and grow.

Meryl D’sa is from India and is pursuing her MFA at FAU with a concentration in fiction. 

Monday, August 28, 2017


My fiancé, an Army sergeant and former police officer, wants one of those $2,000 massage chairs from Brookstone. I’ve yet to walk past the storefront at the mall without losing him to one of the chunky, buzzing machines. He says if he had something like it at home, he’d get more done, as if his body—and his mind, just as tense from work and thoughts of it—were massaged into compliance. “Sure, I’ll load the dishwasher, just give me a few minutes in The Chair.”

No matter our job, we all know the feeling of physical and mental strain—the feeling of oversaturation, or total depletion, which, for me, turns what could be a couple of hours of writing and/or revision into a couple of hours of Netflix and ice cream. “You’re just not in the right state of mind right now to be creating—try tomorrow.” For those of you with children, second jobs, and/or multiple extracurricular positions, duties, hobbies, etc., you may scoff at the essays and articles that attempt to answer the question “How do you write and work?” Despite what you may think, if you want to be a writer, you have the time to find (key word: “find,” because it may not be an easy task).

All I can really offer is some of what I’ve done in the past year as a writer and Visiting Instructor who committed to teaching twelve courses (an overload both semesters, plus two courses over the summer), yet did more writing than I ever had previously. Perhaps it’s the poet in me, but I’ve tried to choreograph a few analogies (perhaps a writer’s habit, or the crutch of an introverted poet) to explain how I balanced work and writing. Friends and peers seem to like the following most:

The tightrope walker crosses the gap between two tall buildings, slowly but surely. He’s holding a long pole for balance, which begins to tilt with his body as both are nudged by gusts of wind. He regains his balance (aligns his center of gravity) by tilting the pole, and thus his weight, into the wind. Without doing so, he knows he’ll fall.

As I balanced my way through a very full teaching schedule, writing became my counterweight to the winds of paper grading, email-answering, citizenship applications and processing, family matters, and job hunts (I was, earlier this summer, ending my Visiting Instructorship), and general mental gust of stress and exhaustion, I’d never felt more compelled to spend my free time clacking away on my laptop. Many days, I didn’t feel like it. Many days, I questioned my writing ‘ability.’ Many days, I imagine writers abandon their laptops/notebooks in claim of experiencing ‘writer’s block.’ But, let me tell you, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

Whatever you’re trying to work on, and struggling to the point at which you’re only winding yourself up, minimize the tab/turn the page and work on something else. Revisit that poem you wrote last year. Free write what could be the heart of a new personal essay. Make a list of craft essay ideas (aka. permit yourself the writing time to lists or outlines, and not clean paragraphs of prose or profound poetic lines). Eventually, in doing so, you’ll ‘retrain’ your mind as I have done this past year, to let myself create and work on multiple things at once. Isn’t that, in a sense, the artist at his freest? The child squirting ketchup on his toast? Hey, let him try it. If that’s what he wants, look at him go—no resistance, no self-imprisoning to how he may think he ‘should be eating…’

Even though university faculty often receive forgiving schedules, we know our free days are often spent working to some degree, or at least living with work on the mind. While some formidable writers have suggested simpler methods of encouraging themselves away from these mental work ties and into a creative/uninhibited state, like getting drunk or high, I’ve heard few success stories. I have, though, heard many writer friends succeed by making “appointments” for themselves to write (ex. “At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, I have an appointment with Microsoft Word. I’m going to turn off my cell phone, deactivate the wifi, give the dog a new chew toy, and assign the children to the basement with a VHS tape of The Lion King and the remainders of last year’s mega bag of Halloween candy”). This method, at least, forces you to examine your schedule and note one—but ideally a few—promising block of free time you may have in the week. Be sure to treat it like an appointment—you must ‘go,’ and if you don’t, a fee will incur (calling yourself up to say, “Hey, I’m so sorry, I’ve made time tomorrow—see you then,” is a wonderful response to dipping out on a schedule write-time. If you’re not committed enough to sticking with an idea like this, then you don’t get to complain about not having the time or energy to write. Stop making excuses for yourself. Your passion, talent, and artistic integrity don’t deserve to be overshadowed by your laziness or mediocre/poor treatment of your time.

Buck up, writer. Buck up, teacher, student, human. You are capable of more. Sit with yourself, think deeply about what’s holding you back.

Answer: It’s you. It’s always been you. Find a greater balance. Take another step forward.

Jamie is the author of hiku [pull] (Porkbelly Press, 2016). Winner of an AWP Intro Journals Project award for poetry and four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has been published with Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and DIAGRAM, among other journals. Jamie received his MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University, where he was a Lawrence A. Sanders poet fellow and currently teaches as an Instructor. Born in England, and former resident of New Zealand, Jamie is a first-generation Asian-American (officially--he passed his naturalization test and interview this summer!) currently living in West Palm Beach with his partner, John, and their greyhound, Jack. Twitter: @jamesahwhite

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Welcome back!

Hello, all, and welcome to the Fall 2017 semester!

To those of you currently in the MFA program, I hope you will attend the Swamp Ape Review meeting today (8/23, Wednesday) at 6pm in the Amp Lab. Check your email for more information.

Our Off the Page Series is off to a fantastic start this fall with a reading by Carole Maso on Thursday, 10/12, at 7pm in the Majestic Palm room. Ira Sukrungruang is up next with a reading on Thursday, 10/19 at 7pm in the Palmetto Palm room.

Our Lawrence A. Sanders Writer-in-Residence for this year is the talented Paul Lisicky. His workshop for MFA students will run in March of 2018, so be on the lookout for an email on how to apply to attend.

Which brings me to my strongest advice to you this Fall 2017 semester. Whether you are a new student (you might check out this blog) or getting ready to graduate (this one is for you) or somewhere in between (yeah, haha, there's a blog for you too), be sure to show up. That is, attend as many events as you can this year. Commit to participating in events inside and outside of the program. Form a writing group with friends. Come meet with me and discuss your progress in the program. Apply for grants, scholarships, and travel money. Go to AWP (it's in Tampa!). Check out this blog on how to log onto the AWP website (and email, visit, or call me if you have trouble). Apply for travel money here. The sooner you apply, the more likely you'll be able to receive funding (they give funding to students participating in conferences and to students who are simply attending).

I love meeting with you one on one, so please set up a meeting if you haven't yet. Good luck!

MR Sheffield's work has been published in The Florida Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and other publications. Probably her poetry manuscript is forthcoming from Flaming Giblet Press, but who really knows how these things shake out, amite? Contact her at and/or 561-297-2974.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Justin Torres Workshop: Finding A Sense of Meaning

A part of me was kind of dreading the workload from an extra week’s worth of workshops, though in the same way I was pretty excited to have Justin Torres critique my work and provide some insight into his generative process, as well as his experience of the writing circuit immediately post-MFA.

I needn’t have worried at all. I think the best thing about having visiting writers come to a program is their insight into these aforementioned processes. It was especially cool as Justin made the workshop relaxed, imploring us on the first day to send out predominantly positive feedback

This was an approach I stuck to throughout the week, and it allowed me to gain better insight into genres I am not so well versed in. The work Justin assigned us was also worth reading, so too was the supplementary knowledge he gave us of each piece and its writer.

One thing that Justin repeated a number of times throughout the week was that, especially in short story writing, the scale of the piece is its biggest strength. In using a simple premise, building on it in subtle though varying ways, you can manipulate the scale of your piece, whatever the genre, so that these subtleties become the fundamentals of the piece.

For example, one piece of non-fiction we looked at seemed to be meandering somewhat in terms of narrative. Though when we delved into it in workshop, Justin pointed out these certain moments of subtle nuance, where in fact the piece was building and building in different ways, manipulating its own scale. In doing so it landed at an ending that was unexpected yet earned.

And that was how the workshop, and the writing I produced for it, seemed to me. Due to our working with multiple genres, I produced a piece of non-fiction that drew on the subtle differences between the UK and the US, my life in both countries, and it was based around what Justin referred to as a kind of “lyrical anthropology”.

While the week went by quickly, and became generative and eye-opening for me, it was also great just to hang out with Justin in our workshop group, as we all socialized together; it was while doing so that he gave us all some pretty cool insights into how his career has been formed post MFA.

So it seemed to me that many of the strengths of good writing go hand-in-hand with the same requirements we have as MFAers, but also really as people of the world: subtlety + nuance + an understanding of our own anthropology begins to denote meaning in its many forms.

Originally from Scotland, Adam Sword is an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University, with a concentration in Fiction.