Tag Archive for #teaching fiction writing

An exercise for close reading

I’ve written before about these two articles by Tim Parks on reading, but as I’m preparing to teach them again this week, I’ve added an exercise where we’re applying his questions to a story we’re reading. The story is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks about a beautiful man who dates an ugly woman. (You can buy the issue of The Missouri Review in which it originally appeared here.)

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My guess is students are going to have some negative reactions to this in that the main character is so fixated on his own beauty and her ugliness to the point it’s of the utmost importance, but the question then is, is Banks endorsing this viewpoint or is this just the qualities/concepts he’s working in? Whenever I teach something I want to remind students that exploring one side of an issue doesn’t mean you endorse it. This can apply to so many things–racism, sexism, feminism, and so on.

So in relation to this story, I’m asking students to discuss these questions from Parks in relation to the Banks opening:

  • What are the qualities/concepts that matter most to the author in the opening of this story?
  • How are the characters positioned in relation to these qualities or concepts?
  • What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? What is the consequent debate arising from this atmosphere?
  • How is the writer trying to draw you into the mental world of his characters through his writing? Through his conversation with you?
  • Is the world authentic? How so?

After this, we’ll do a writing exercise where students write an opening that considers these questions from the reader and how they want them answered. We’ll see how it goes!

I’m a big believer in causation in stories. Something happens and something happens as a result. If you have causation in motion in a story and a character who is willing to make things happen, what you have is a story that is much easier to write. For example, if you have a story that opens with a teenage girl arguing with her parents because they won’t let her go to a Kanye West concert, your story is going to be much easier to write if you have a character who is willing to make things happen. For instance, if she folds her arms and sits on her bed saying “shoot!” about not getting to go, that’s going to be a hard (and possibly boring) story to write because your character isn’t willing to get things moving. If you have a girl who flips her parents off behind their backs then sneaks out, what do you have? The next scene. You’ve got to figure out how to get her to the concert (she’s probably going to need a friend to drive because her parents would hear if she just started her car) which will give you more characters to work with along with a destination, and at some point, you’ve got to get her back home, hopefully to parents who have already called the police, which would make sense for them, wouldn’t it? Overreacting the way they did to a little misogynistic rap.

But what I started this post to say was how causation sometimes gets misinterpreted, when a writer has something happen and then says it causes something else to happen. For instance:

He kicked the tub causing him to cry out in pain.
He diced onion after onion causing his eyes to well with tears.
The sun rose above the trees causing her to squint. He hit a tree with his car, resulting in a broken leg.

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I don’t know why this drives me crazy, but it does. When it’s written out that an action causes a reaction it causes me to grow crazy. I think it’s because I’m such a believer in an active reader who wants to work, and that fiction is about the reader making connections through the writing and not the writer making connections for the reader. When an author tells me point-blank that a stubbed toe causes a character to cry out in pain I think, no shit. Just show me the toe stubbing and then show me the character crying out. I swear, I’ll get the connection.

Did I ever do this in my own fiction? Oh, I’m sure I did. I’m guessing it’s some kind of shadow self of annoyance that makes me pick these things out. I remember a few years into writing when I realized how many extraneous “thats” I had in my stories, to the point I had to do a search and delete. I never did that with “causing” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to at some point.

What about you? What tics do you see in your work and others?

Olive Kitteridge exercises – part 2

As I wrote about here, Olive Kitteridge is both a wonderful book and a kick-ass instructional guide for fiction writers. I’ll continue here with a few more exercises based on things I think Strout does like a boss:

Two stories in one: In “Tulips,” we learn the story of the Larkin family as well as what happens to Henry Kitteridge after his stroke. How does the blending of two stories strengthen both narrative lines, and how does the larger (public) story help to shape the smaller (private) one? Write a story where you take a larger event–of national importance, or local importance–that affects many people and tell it beside a personal story that is unrelated but happening simultaneously. How does the public story help to shape the private one, or how does the private story inform the understanding of the public story for the character?

Character understanding: Oftentimes when we’re telling a story, we’re telling it to try and figure out just what it means or because there is mystery inside of it somewhere. In “Tulips,” on pages 145 and 157, Olive is trying to understand why her son doesn’t seem to like her very much, and while telling the story, the reader begins to understand even though she can’t see through to the truth. How can you lead the reader to understand what a character cannot?
Write a scene where the reader understands something the character telling the story doesn’t–a child telling their parent about an incident at school, a man telling a friend why his spouse has left him, a person fired from a job for no apparent reason.

Assumptions: People often aren’t what they seem, and not in the secret I’m-a-serial-killer way they (delightfully) would have us believe on Criminal Minds, but in that we are more multi-faceted than we give each other credit for. Strout constantly is turning characters on their ears in a way that is believable and in-sync to who they are but a surprise to those who know them. Look at the portrayal of Mary acting out of character on pg 160, or Marlene not just being a sweet, daft woman on pages 176-77.
Write a scene where someone upsets another person’s expectations, where they do something that isn’t out of character, but that reveals another facet of that character.

I hope these have been helpful, or if nothing else, will lead you back to read Olive Kitteridge again. Even writing these up, I’m tempted to take another look and discover all I’ve missed. If you have exercises of your own based on specific works by Strout or by other writers, let me know in the comments!

Olive Kitteridge exercises

I’ve long been a fan of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for about anyone who loves to read, and each time I read it, I’m struck once again by its wonderfulness. I’ve taught it a lot too–in short story writing classes, in novel writing classes. If I taught straight up lit classes more often, I’d use it there too. As such, I’ve put together quite a few fiction writing exercises around this book that I thought might be useful to others.

(I’m referencing the trade paperback edition.)

1) Inference: Look at pages 18 (longest paragraph), 31 (first paragraph, second section), and 100 (second half of page). Much is revealed, but little is actually said about what has happened, rather it is implied. This is a practice in suspense and subtlety. Write a scene where something has happened but that something isn’t actually said: a character lost a job, is putting a marriage back together after an infidelity, cheated on an exam, etc. How can you imply the action so it is understood by the reader without actually saying it, and what does the not saying reveal about the character?

2) Setting: Look at page 39 and the top of 40. In this scene, Strout uses the setting to further the conversation both by addressing it and using it as backdrop to mirror the current emotions. Write a scene where setting is used to deepen the meaning of a conversation between two characters.

3) Triangles in fiction: Read pages 116-118. Pay attention to how Olive’s allegiance changes throughout the scene from her husband to the boy. How does this happen? Why do triangles work so well in fiction? Write a scene with three people where two are aligned and there is an outsider that comes in and changes that alliance: A couple and a child, three friends but two are closer, two co-workers and their superior, etc.

4) Ambiguity: Strout does a lot of “telling” in her stories and does it brilliantly, but sometimes she relies wholly on action and leaves it to the reader to interpret. Students sometimes have a hard time with this, but I think she has some great examples for discussing the difference between ambiguity versus vagueness. With ambiguity you have different interpretations of the same action, while with vagueness, you’re left with no real interpretations and have to fill in the blanks about what has actually happened. Page 122 has a great example of a solid action left up to interpretation. Olive’s body doesn’t work the same anymore but does that mean she’s changed, she can’t return to “normal,” that the physical pain is a manifestation of the emotional? I don’t know for sure, but I know what’s happening to her body and can suggest evidence for all the readings. In this exercise, try writing a scene with solid action that can be interpreted multiple ways. What types of textual evidence do you need to supply? Do any of the readings contradict the others? In many ways, this is just “showing versus telling” taken up a notch.

I’ll have a second post soon with a few more.

Trigger finger pointing

“I had an incident come up in class this week” could be another way of saying, “I taught a Mary Gaitskill story in class this week.” I’m a fan of Gaitskill’s work in the same way I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates’s: it makes me uncomfortable; it makes me think; it reminds me how people very different from myself think, and then it makes me think some more about what that says about our world.

We read “The Girl on the Plane” in my Narrative Time class, a pretty brutal story about a vile man who gang-raped a woman when he was much younger and is just now coming to accept that’s what he did. For years he has justified his behavior based on her behavior, and told himself what he wanted to hear, and only now, years later, does he see how little that holds.

Shortly before class, I received an email from a student saying she thought it would be a good idea to warn students beforehand about material like this, to basically offer a trigger warning, a term that is debated a lot in academic circles and about which I have mixed feelings. I decided to ask the class about it and the feelings were mixed. “It’s college and people should be aware we’ll be discussing adult topics.” “How can you ever guess might be someone’s trigger?” “People shouldn’t be forced to read something that makes them feel unsafe.” “This kind of thing takes away from the real topics at hand” (as evidenced by the fact we were giving classtime to talk about the issue versus narrative time). All good points.

Like with most things, I can see both sides, and I don’t mean that as I’m a well-rounded individual who takes the high ground, but as someone kind of wishy-washy who would have sucked at debate in high school. At some point I would have stood at the podium and said to the opposition, “Well, gosh. You’ve got a good point there,” and scratched my head.

I guess my bottom line came down to this: if a student is that repulsed or triggered by a story, there’s no way she’s to get out of it what I want her to get out of it. You can’t discuss the brilliant use of switchback time or point-of-view when you’re that preoccupied with something else in the story. I also told students that if something like this were to come up again, while I couldn’t speak for other professors, I would want them to stop reading. Their mental health is more important than reading a story. I would want them to come talk to me about it and we could figure something else out. I think we can all have stories we react to like this and mine would be different from theirs. If it continued to happen to a student with any frequency, I think the student would have to take a hard look at whether this was the correct major for him or her.

As for now, I don’t think I’ll teach the Gaitskill story again, and a part of me thinks that’s too bad. It’s a wonderful, tough story and one that explores a psychology that is very much a part of our culture. I don’t consider this censorship but common sense. There are other stories that work just as well to demonstrate narrative time so I’ll use them instead. I do worry though that what I’m calling common sense is also wanting to avoid the headache of it all, and if laziness isn’t the first step toward a form of censorship.

Classic Time

Classic time, as you may have guessed, is the default setting for a lot of works in the 20th and 21st century according to Joan Silber. She writes, “In novels that might serve as examples of classic time, the span is short enough to be easily seen as a unity and is often delineated by a natural border–a month, a season, a year.” It’s the time frame you don’t pay much attention too because it’s not something out of the ordinary; if anything, it’s what you’re expecting, and as such, sinks into the background, but like a lot of things you might be expecting, there’s a comfort there in knowing what you’re getting.

As a reader and a writer, I think I’m drawn to classic time. For writing, it helps me think about where I’m heading (or more accurately, when I’m heading), and since I don’t often know where I’m going, it gives me a sense of structure to work within for pacing. As a reader, it’s the same kind of thing: I want to have a sense where I’m going, and even if it’s not explicitly said the book will end at X point, I still have the sense it will be at the end of the vacation, or the summer, or the school year.

What’s so great about this chapter on classic time, is how Silber addresses the use of scene, summary, and generalized time. How do you move forward without showing every single thing? How do you give a sense of things happening over and over again without boring the reader? (The example she uses here is all the parties in The Great Gatbsy.) She talks about the “immediacy of scenes” and “highly inflected scenes,” saying that when you’re trying to figure out what to show in scene you have to remember that the “elements are reduced to their service of the story.”

For the Narrative Time class, we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” first. In the story she says from the get-go that the lights are going to be turned off for five days, setting up the time frame. She plays with this a bit, but as a reader I like the sense I know where I’m going. She does a great job too looking at generalized time, showing how Shoba shopped for groceries, prepared foods, hosted guests before their lives changed, but in the generalization is very specific on details: “He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one.”

We also read David Leavitt’s “Territory” a story that takes place over a week-long trip to visit the main character’s mother and that uses more full-scene flashbacks to tell the story. And finally, we looked at “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio about a thirteen-year-old boy escorting a woman home from one of his mother’s parties and intersperces backstory with less full scene but just as effectively.

While classic time might be the default, it’s anything but boring. Look for it in books and stories as you read, or in TV shows and movies, and you’ll see the range of possibilities it affords.

Next up: long time, of which Silber is a master.

How much time do you have?

We started classes last week at Wright State, and the second day of class I asked my students what they thought off the two chapters we had read and hands went up, they gave me what I also considered the highlights, and at seven minutes into class I thought, oh shit, now what? I’ve worked with a lot of these students before and remember now how good they are. They’re engaged and smart, and as such, discussions are not so much a discussion of what the essay is about but what to do with it, which means I have to push them further just like they push me further.

The class is called “Narrative Time in Fiction” and is centered around Joan Silber’s brilliant book The Art of Time in Fiction.

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She’s broken down narrative structures into different classifications: classic time, long time, switchback time, fabulous time, and slow time. As we discuss them in class, as a way of organizing my thoughts and harnessing this great class’s energy, I hope to give you the highlights here along with what we’re reading. Let me start with a few quotes from Silber’s intro:

  • “A story is entirely determined by what portion of time it chooses to narrate.”
  • “Plot likes causation. We read anything looking for a pattern of events, and through it a meaning–the reason someone is bothering to tell us.”
  • “How much time [a story] covers has everything to do with what it means.”
  • “Time is always in some ways the subject of fiction.”
  • “A story is already over before we hear it. That is how the teller knows what it means.”

I can’t say this enough: this book is fantastic. As I was struggling to write a novel, it helped me figure out that my pacing was off because I hadn’t yet determined the time frame; I was just flabbily writing toward an ending. Going back and framing it around a school year made all the difference, and since then, with every story I’ve written, I’ve taken the time frame into consideration. I’ve ended up with tighter, more pointed stories, I think, and it’s all due to this book. I hope my students find it as helpful as I have.

Up first: classic time. We’re reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point,” and David Leavitt’s “Territory.” Stay tuned!