Thursday, February 8, 2018

On drafting and finding the heart of the story

In a comedy writing class at The Second City -- a standby in the world of Chicago improv whose classes I would absolutely urge the comedically-interested to check out -- a teacher looked at my scene sketch and made a face. She often made that face.

I strain to recall it all, but I think we were reading my piece about a pair of startup entrepreneurs who get into a steadily escalating blowout debate about their business concept -- and at the same time, they were throwing a party to launch the business concept, and there were some jokes about the food that these guys were serving, and there was some kind of feminist commentary in there somewhere with the entrepreneurs’ wives, and they were regaling their glory days as brothers of a fraternity, and they started outcompeting each other in some fart jokes, I believe -- and then, my teacher made that face. “Here’s something I like to tell people. Imagine you enter a room full of things. You could take all of the things and put them in your story, or you could take just one of them, and really see just that one thing. Which story would you rather read?”

That little parable might have gifted me with the single most important takeaway of my earliest and often embarrassing ploughings-away at writing fiction.

I think the metaphor of ploughing is actually a useful one. When we plough, we turn over familiar ground. A week later, totally unexpected plants might be growing. Ancient seeds, long dormant in that soil, are sprouting. We discover things we could have never anticipated -- and that’s a very exciting process of writing.

One of the toughest disciplines I had to learn, especially in the beginning, is the art of settling on just one main story idea that comes up in the process of drafting discovery -- the art of finding the heart of your story. For instance, looking back at the entrepreneur scene, I can take a glance at that messy draft and think -- ah-ha! How absolutely hilarious and satisfying it would be to explore just that one core emotional element, of these entrepreneurs who can never settle on an idea, and therefore never get their business off the ground. We could explore the blockages that most people can relate to, like perfectionism; the vulnerability going on in these two self-doubting former frat guys. In this case, knowing what I know now, I would not choose to explore all the semi-related items I found in the room. I would zero-in on just that one core aspect of their emotional dysfunction -- inability to launch -- and explore that one thing for all it’s worth.

Within these entrepreneurs, I know that that particular core emotional element is the
most interesting, fruitful aspect of the relationship between them because that element was the initial inspiration for the story; it was an observation that came from life. I once worked at an Internet company and would join lots of conversations that featured deep pining to start the next big app, online food truck, sustainable grocery delivery service, etc. I relished in hearing this group of my coworkers daydreaming about Steve Jobs and Zuckerberg, imagining their own startup careers founding multi-billion dollar efficiencies that solved the world’s inconveniences, but never committing to moving forward with any of these business ideas, big or small. It touched me. I was interested in this moment where Silicon Valley and young entrepreneurship was burning people up with FOMO, yet where dreams seemed so hard to turn into reality.

Do you struggle with focusing in on the core emotional place of your story? I
now readily embrace the beauty of the second draft in coaxing this element to life, reshaping the work around its heart. Of all the material you’ve generated in your first draft, of all the ground you’ve churned up and of all those discovered seeds that are growing, what do you have to trim away so that those one or two different story elements, the most vital, alive, important focus areas, can thrive?

Cherri is a first year fiction MFA student who is completing her first collection of short stories.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Good Poets and Mystery Muses

Like all good poets, I have a notebook, in which the greater portion of used pages contain the unfinished. One-liners that hang from the top of otherwise vacant pages are in the majority, followed by varying lengths of fragmentary poems at different stages of development. Some of these are hopeless causes that no longer receive consideration. But there are a few that have become noteworthy thorns in my side. These will not rest or give me rest until they are complete.

One of these restless poems is of a man I saw only once. I saw him while parked at a Loves gas station in a smaller than usual rural Oklahoma town, and immediately he became a poem in the making. He was one of my firsts, the first subject outside my familiar realm of existence, my first attempt at characterizing someone I knew nothing about. He puzzled me, and I knew instantly that he would continue to do so until I had done him justice. But what type of poem was he to be? And what do I say about a man I don’t know? For days and weeks following my sighting I carried this man around in my memory until fear of him fading without me permanently sketching his portrait forced my hand. So strong was the need to pin him down and figure him out that he consumed my days and commandeered my nights. But the question remained: What do I say about a man I do not know? I started with what I saw:
                                                He rested his bike and his back
against the wall, a pattern of
bricks, beneath

a sprawling sign that read:
Love’s Country Store.

Thus, I began what would prove to be one of the most testing pieces I have ever written. I knew what I saw and could easily describe the physical, the tangible. But I sensed more than I saw that evening. I sensed something that was not concrete, something I couldn’t easily pin to the page of a notebook. This detective-like gut feeling was as real as what I saw, only less visible. How do I convey what I saw and sensed? Both seemed equally important to the process of bringing this man to life on paper. I fiddled with the idea of fictionalizing him. Writers do it all the time, right? I mean, who would know? I would know, I conceded. It would be an injustice. I couldn’t. Like the Psalmist, I lamented, it is too high, I cannot attain to it.

So, I settled with what I wanted to know about him:

                                                I watched him with a longing to know
his thoughts, wanting to hear the
winding turns of his narrative…

He, my mystery muse, still haunts my thoughts. His unfinished poem awaits closure. And like all good poets who know that some poems cannot be rushed or forced into compliance, I hold his memory and wait for time to loosen the scales, hopeful that as they fall the hidden will be revealed and the man in my memory will be justly rendered.

                                                ... I searched
his face for a sign, a furrowing of the brows,

a subtle twitch of facial muscle,
evidence of life inside his dejected body.
But he was transfixed in his thoughts,

suspended in a state of delicate quandary,
a space more satisfying than the view

of trashcans and stained pavement.

Corrine is currently a first year MFA student at Florida Atlantic University. She is an international student from Jamaica who suffers from persistent homesickness.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

There Should Be Voices in Your Head

I asked my characters why they speak to each other the way they do. They said,

“We don’t think about things before we say them.”

I erased a line of exposition from a previous paragraph and told my characters, but I think about everything before I write it down.

“Do you really though?”

I added a note to the margin of a previous page, she wouldn’t really react this way.

“She may not react that way, but she’s certainly thinking about it. We know, we asked her. She whispers instead of shouting when she’s upset and you have her there on that page yelling.”

I erased the line of dialogue and wrote, she whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “I didn’t know.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.

“Good, that’s good. But couldn’t it always be better?”

I put my hand to my forehead and resisted the urge to bang my temple against the page, so that the words would be imprinted on my cheek in pencil and I could show everyone how hard I’ve been working.

“Don’t think about the function. Think about the lyric. Listen for the music. Picture the sound in your mind, the sentence has to breathe like stars do, right before they fade.”

She whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “You know I’m bad at conversation. I didn’t know you would be gone in three months.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.

“Good enough,” they said.


I believe I read somewhere that dialogue should read like poetry. Characters do not always need to speak (to the same degree that some physical humans should not always speak). Therefore, when characters do talk, I make sure that their words have significant meaning in that they themselves are telling parts of their own story. Or, I make sure that their words benefit the exposition surrounding them, that the spoken words essentially sound ‘pretty’. At least this is what I try to do. Sometimes dialogue comes more naturally and therefore becomes something I have to cut repetitively in editing due to the fact that a lot of what people say is less important than what they do. I find this to be true for most of my characters as well.

With every line of dialogue I write, I try to pay attention to the line-by-line purpose. As an example, the characters above speak directly to me instead of speaking directly to my character. They are both demanding and specific. I, both as a writer and a character, do not always say anything back. Perhaps this is an exercise in getting purpose down onto the page without all of the excess, flowery language… perhaps I am simply hearing voices. Either way, dialogue, I think, can be a fun way to play with your characters. It can be a useful tool when addressing description, setting and atmosphere. For me personally, it's a really in-depth way to practice getting inside of my characters’ minds. This should make characters unique because no two characters are exactly the same, their voices should sound different as their minds work differently. Unless, of course, you are writing a story that involves two identical minds. In that case, I applaud your approach, question your sanity, and would like to read a copy.

I find that dialogue does not always have to serve a function. Instead, it brings the words on the page to life and sounds more like a rhythm, or lyric. It’s like that last piece to the puzzle, the outer edge or corner that only fits in a certain spot and deserves a lot of practice of placement. 

Emily White is a first-year MFA student currently trying to accomplish the daunting task of completing a story. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Dilemma

It was during my time as undergraduate, in my first creative writing course, Intro to Creative Writing, that I learned some topics may be off-limits. Our TA, in an effort to help us come up with a story, told us to “Write what you know.” And that I did. I knocked out a 16-page short story inspired by personal events my family and I at the time were in the process, of well, processing. It was a relatable subject, something that I felt a reader could latch on to. In my effort to make those real circumstances less real and more fictive, I changed the names of every real person involved. To make sure I had a solid, error-free, fiction piece to submit to the workshop, I asked my mother, one of the “characters” who I portray in my story, to proofread my work. She gladly obliged.

Five years later, I am realizing sometimes you can’t always write what you know. But, I still do it. I find it difficult to find that balance of crafting original characters and moments in a work that does not somehow slightly taste of the very real and original people in my life. In the space of those five years as an undergraduate and now graduate, my mother has not volunteered to read a piece of my writing. The two exceptions being poems that do not refernce her. Her issue, which I failed to take into consideration, was not only the personal subject matter of the story but also her representation in it. 

Much of what I know is family. Much of what I write about is family. Within these past two years in the MFA program, I’ve been thinking about how to tackle this dilemna:

As writers, do we have free range to write on all and any transgressions/memories/experiences we are directly or indirectly involved with?
As a writer, is calling yourself a “storyteller” a liable pass to translate these intimate moments to public narrative? By doing this, am I capturing moments or exploiting particular situations and people involved?

I’m not sure entirely how to differentiate this, yet.

Maybe time makes the difference. I often find myself in it, in a scene, but it’s not really a scene, it is my life. Needless to say, I am in that particular moment and I think how the events unfolding around me would make for a great short story. I then go on to conjur up that story still present in the ongoing event. This is problematic in the sense that this is me almost certainly “living to write”.

I think this might be where we can differentiate. Maybe as long as these moments and experiences are organic and not procured by a writer intent on experiencing moments for writing material then it can be okay, no?

As a writer, I don’t want to commit forgery and write a shell of a personality. If I am going to capture those initmacies around me it is my onus to ensure I respect the personalities I am inspired by. But then who says these very real people want themselves replicateed at all? They haven’t signed their experiences and personalities away to me on loan.

By borrowing from reality, I can’t help but think that I am, at times, trivializing these experiences for my gain, for my “art”.

By changing names and avoiding truths does the retelling of these personal moments, whether fiction or nonfiction, become a façade, a plastic rendition of what was?

That sounds a bit pretentious. I’m still trying to work this out, clearly. I write what I know. And I’d like to write more of what I don’t know and have yet to experience. I’d like to write something my mother might not be concerned with. She is, after all, what I know. I’d rather not take what is not mine, but more often than not I am drawn to write what is familiar, what is close. I am still trying to figure this all out, so bear with me.

Janine Shand is a second-year MFA student studying fiction. She dabbles in prose but mainly writes fiction that reads like nonfiction. That is her dilemma.

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.