Tag Archives: fiction

Wednesday’s Word: Kleptocracy. Say that three times fast, and then write a story.

The last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: about new routines, upcoming projects and books unfinished. Planning, but not so much creating. It seems right, then, to click over to Wordsmith.org and spend some time with the Wednesday’s word of the day* — and my muse.

(I hope she’s listening.)

Today’s word:

kleptocracy. Noun. A government by the corrupt in which rulers use their official positions for personal gain.

A word and definition applicable to many, I’d say.

*****

Head of Household

Under the muted glow of the nightlight, Nora pulled at her lip. In the mirror, she could see a growing line of blood trickle down the inside of her mouth.

“Damn,” she whispered.

“Guess I got a little crazy, huh?” Glen came up from behind her and put heavy hands on her shoulders.

“Crazy!” Nora said. “You bit me.” She wriggled out from under his grip.

“Yeah, just making sure you knew who was in charge.” He slapped her ass. Nora flipped him off and marched back to the bedroom. She heard Glen laugh, but he didn’t apologize.

Glen wasn’t always so rough and crass. It wasn’t until the day after they’d gotten married, when Nora woke to the sour smell of morning breath and Glen’s face staring down at hers, that he started declaring he was now “master of her domain.”

“Good morning?” she’d said, as she’d laughed and pushed him aside. She had thought he was kidding around.

The next week, though, he began claiming her time, telling her exactly how many nights a year she could go out with her girlfriends. No more Happy Hour meet-ups or impromptu coffee dates. And “Ladies night out” was a conspiracy, he said.

During dinners, he got greedy, taking much more than his share and leaving her with scraps some nights. She called him out on it, but he told her she’d just have to start cooking more.

“The King has a right to seconds,” he said on the night she served tenderloin. “And thirds.” He stabbed at the last piece on the platter.

And after the lights went out, he was like an animal in hiding most nights. He waited until she was almost asleep and too tired to fight back and he took her. Tonight, he’d been vicious.

“How’s the lip?” Glen asked as he crawled into bed.

“I can still taste blood…just so you know,” she said.

He patted her head and turned over without saying goodnight. Nora sat up on her elbow and studied the shape of his silhouette. When she heard his breathing slow to a shallow rhythm, she reached out and put her hand on his waist.

She squeezed.

He was growing fat.

*****

They Might Be Giants – Don’t Let’s Start from They Might Be Giants on Vimeo.

* Wednesday’s Word means write something – an essay, poem, or flash fiction – based on Wordsmith.org’s word of the day and post it by midnight. Past pieces from this fun writing exercise can be found under Wednesday’s Word on the sidebar to the right.

Ride the internet waves.

Today, I’m guest posting at Lisa Rivero’s blog, Writing Life.

Lisa and I live within easy driving distance of each other, but it was the ever-expansive internet that brought us together. I won’t bore you with details on when and where we connected, or how long we “chatted” before we finally met in person (writers’ forums and social networking sounds a lot like online dating, don’t you think? Only we exchange website domains instead of phone numbers).

How Lisa and I met isn’t half as important as why I value her as a writing friend: her blog continues to inspire me, and she’s a constant bouy of support. So, jump on the broadband and slide on over to Lisa’s blog, where I write about how one genre of writing informs another:

On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction.

If you’re like me, you’re always in search of the perfect How-To book when it comes to the craft of writing, but sometimes the lessons are found in other books. You just have to pay attention.

Browse around Lisa’s blog, too, while you’re there. She publishes some great posts on writing and some amazing flash narratives.

How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

In the seventh grade, I signed up for athletics. I lasted for one season (skinny, asthmatic kids are better suited for things like Drama), but I stayed long enough to experience a powerful moment.

After one look, and a few practices into the school year, the coaches figured out that I was C-team material. I was too short to spike a volleyball and couldn’t complete an overhand serve if my popularity depended on it (which it did). I was easily run over in basketball and was given an alternate uniform that screamed “sub.” During games, I took my seat at the bench. But during each practice, I did the drills and ran the laps. When track season rolled around, Coach Lewis looked at me and said “long distance runner.” He signed me up for the 400 meter race.

We didn’t practice with Coach Lewis often during track season, which made him all the more intimidating when he did show up on the field. He barked orders, shouted praise, laughed once in a while. On a particularly chilly Saturday morning at a track meet, he said the one sentence that has stuck with me ever since.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Cold weather aggravates asthma, and during the middle of the 400 meter event, I started wheezing, sputtering, slowing down. I jogged in the outside lane. Coach Lewis didn’t like that. He walked up to the chain link fence that surrounded the track, stuck his head out like a snapping turtle, and hollered.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

I was shocked. Had he forgotten I had asthma? Where was the sympathy? Too scared to stop and ask him, I picked up the pace. I took the deepest breaths I could manage and the longest strides my chicken legs would take. I merged into the inside lane, rounded the last turn, and passed that tall girl with the mean eyes. I focused on the white lines that marked my lane and tuned into the sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt of the track. I pushed myself, into fourth place, earning a ribbon and a big boost of confidence.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Coach Lewis’ words flashed through my mind last week as I experienced the same shortness of breath and sluggish feeling. This time, it wasn’t my asthma slowing me down, though, it was fear. I had reached a familiar point in my novel draft, the place in the story where ideas  scatter and plot weakens, the moment where I stare at the blank screen and worry if what I write next will kill the energy in the work.

Barbara O’Neal calls that place “The Slough of Despond.” In her post on Writer Unboxed, O’Neal says:

This is the [place] on the old maps, the murky, muddy spot where quicksand sucks at the feet and demons overtake the heart.

I’ve been here before, with this same story. In the past, I’ve faltered and quit – full stop – and gone back to the beginning to rework chapter one. But, this time is different. I’ve got Coach Lewis breathing down my neck. And, I have a few other incentives to keep me moving forward.

1. The Radio. I recently read my story, “Red Velvet Sunday,” on WUWM’s Lake Effect program (click here to listen). Nothing makes you feel more like a writer than answering questions about the craft and having the honor of reading your work to a new audience. The experience was like a shot of adrenaline, and it was a reminder that good things do happen, usually at just the right time — like during a writing lull when you wonder if you’ve got it in you to succeed.

2. Jody Hedlund. In her post, “How to Beat the Fear of Being a One Book Wonder,” she talks about old self-doubts that resurfaced while writing her second novel. Her thoughts on how to move through those fears apply to writers at any phase.

3. Ira Glass. In his video on storytelling (part 1) (the link found via a post from Jane Friedman on Writer Unboxed), he talks about “the anecdote” as a sequence of actions that move a story forward one moment at a time. That’s how I can get through this next section so that, as Barbara O’Neal says, I’ll “eventually…have a finished draft. To rewrite. So goes the game.”

How about you? What memorable moments keep you from coughing and sputtering your way to “I quit?”

Coach Lewis

Me, bottom right corner, finisher.

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On Themes, Characters, and Creative Spaces: An interview with Author, Danielle Evans

“Tell your mother she has never had any idea
how easy it is for something to be destroyed.”
— from “Snakes” in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

~

I’ll admit, I was first attracted to Danielle Evans’ collection of short stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, because of the title. But, it was the stories themselves, and the characters within, that held my attention.

Sana Krasikov (author of One More Year: Stories) calls Evans’ writing “quietly magnetic.” I love this description; it’s so true. Evans creates characters who are within my reach, even when their experiences differ from my own. I slid easily into their lives and found myself in the middle of deep loss, heartache, and threat. Yet, I didn’t want to look away. Instead, I was compelled to sit with the characters, even after the story ended, and then go back and read about them again.

After so many great reviews,from people like Lydia Peelle in the New York Times and Ron Charles at the Washington Post, I’m honored to host Ms. Evans here, where she answers a few questions about her collection and about writing.

For a chance to win a copy of her book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, drop your name in the comments section. I’ll choose the winner on Tuesday, February 1st.

~

CC: The opening story in your book, “Virgins,” first appeared in The Paris Review three years before this book was published. Did you discover an emerging theme in your writing early on that led you to publish a book of short stories? Or, did you consider a theme and then craft the stories?

photo by Nina Subin

DE: “Virgins” was actually one of the last stories in the book to be written. It was published in 2007, just about a month before I sold the collection to Riverhead. Typically there’s about a year between selling the book and publication, but various things can slow that process down—in this case, my editor’s maternity leave, and my first full time teaching job, which coincided with the start of the editing process and meant I had to learn to divide my writing and editing time from my teaching time. I didn’t write most of the stories with any end goal in mind. By the time that I wrote the first draft of Virgins, in 2006, I had a sense that most of the stories that I was happy with belonged together somehow. The only story I wrote with the collection in mind was “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” which I thought tied together the themes of various stories, but took them someplace new. In the editorial process, a lot of what I had to think about was how these stories, which I’d always thought of as somewhat separate, could become one thing. At points I’d find that, for example, a particular story could survive having an element cut and still work, but cutting that element would take something away from the collection as a whole. There was a story that went in after the collection was sold, because it seemed to add some balance after a few stories were cut from the original version of the manuscript, and another that almost went in, but that in the end I couldn’t make claim its own territory—it seemed too similar to work I’d already done. So, there was a lot of thought about the book as a book, and not just a series of stories, but mostly I was thinking about topic and form and organization. Questions of theme I think are generally best left to readers and reviewers—at least personally, I find they can crush my writing if I let them guide it.

CC: Each of your stories is written with such strength and emotion. I especially love, “Snakes,” where you tackle issues of race, family, and failed expectations head on through the lives of Tara, Allison, and their grandmother, crafting each character’s emotional depth or shallowness with great skill. How do you approach character development? Do you spend more time getting to know each one before you write? Or, do you write more organically, allowing the characters to reveal themselves throughout the first drafts?

DE: I generally try to write organically, at least at first pass. The good thing about working in shorter forms is that if it doesn’t work, you can just throw it out. There isn’t that sense of pressure that you have with a novel that you’ve been working on for two years, or that you realize will be a decade long commitment. So, if I have an idea for a story, or I feel drawn to a particular character, I just write it, and if it doesn’t come together, I can abandon it, or I can leave it alone indefinitely and return to it months or years later, because a story is short enough to easily drop back into if there’s anything redeemable in it. “Snakes” is an example of that. The first draft of the story was one of the earliest things I wrote—it was actually something I wrote in one of my first college creative writing courses. For years I’d revisit it and not quite know what was off. I knew Tara was withholding something—there was always a kind of secrecy and repression built into the story—but I had no idea what. Then my editor read it, and in her critique asked some smart questions about Tara, and suddenly I had an answer. Once I had that answer it was easy to go back into the story and tear out most of what was there so I could rewrite it with greater clarity.

CC: In the Acknowledgments, you say, “The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing is one of the best places a writer could ever call home.” I’d love to hear more about your experiences there and how they shaped you as a writer.

DE: I think if most early writers were to make a list of ideal gifts, those gifts would include time, money, and faith—not necessarily in that order. There are many institutions that are good at providing one or two of those things, but The Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing really provided all three. There was a teaching commitment that was enough to keep you grounded, but not so much pressure that it cut into your writing time, there was a stipend that was enough to live comfortably on in that part of the country, and there was a real sense of community, a sense that we were there to do our work because someone genuinely believed in it. There are a lot of writing spaces where people feel like admitting that they don’t know something or need help navigating something is akin to failure, and I think the creative writing faculty at UW-Madison really worked to create a space where that was not the case, where it was safe to ask questions and you could expect thoughtful answers. Once you are in a position where people think you know the answers to certain questions, procedural or existential, about writing, you realize how much time it takes to answers those questions, and exactly how generous the people who kept their doors open for you were. Madison is also, hands down, the prettiest place I have ever lived.

CC: What are you reading these days?

DE: Student journals, forever and ever. But, I am amassing a collection of books to read during the summer: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Jane Brox’s Brilliant, a history of artificial light, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I am looking forward to Tayari Jones’ forthcoming book, Silver Sparrow, which I had the pleasure of hearing her read from last Fall. Last year I read and loved many books, but especially Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. And, I exaggerate a bit about the journals. In the context of teaching, I also get to reread some of my favorite books and poems and stories—among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. I’m teaching an independent study this semester where some of the books are chosen by the students, so I’m reading Blood Meridian for the first time, which I’m looking forward to.

CC: Do you have any final thoughts or advice for writers on the rise?

DE: My main advice is to do the work that you believe in, because that’s the only part of the process you can predict or control.

~

You can find Danielle Evans on her website, Facebook, and on Goodreads. You can purchase her book at Indiebound.org and on Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy, then check back here on February 1st.

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Word up. It’s Execrate, and I’m disgusted.

Wednesday’s Word means write something – an essay, poem, or flash fiction – based on Wordsmith.org’s word of the day and post it by midnight. Past pieces from this fun writing exercise can be found under Wednesday’s Word on the sidebar to the right.

~

I’m feeling sassy today, maybe because this is the last Wednesday’s Word post for a while or because it’s the weather. Quite possibly, my attitude stems from reading the definition of Today’s word:

execrate. verb. to detest, denounce, or curse.

It’s hard to meditate on a word like that and not puff up my chest or haul out my soapbox. I curse the cold temps right now, for example, and the encroaching deep freeze that the meteorologist with the hair piece keeps gushing about (see? it is the weather). But, do you know the first thing that popped into my mind after I read execrate?

Food that cannot be chewed properly. If you’re a finicky eater like me, you know what I’m talking about.

*****

The Martyr

Cynthia closed her menu and set it on the table. Peter whispered to the waiter, who nodded and slipped away. Cynthia smiled that dreamy smile. Two weeks ago, Peter’s photo popped up on her online dating page with an “I’m interested” vote. She studied his profile. He had those deep, brown eyes that hinted at warm nights by a fire in December and boxes of rich chocolate on Valentine’s Day, so she bumped him up to “Let’s chat.” They talked online for an hour and a half. Then, they both sent the “You, Me, Now” instant message on the next day. It was so cute.

This dinner was their first real date, and she wanted to make a good impression. She paid him full attention and got chills down her spine when he said her name in the same sentence as “beautiful.” Was there a hint of an English accent in his voice? She hoped so.

“Beautiful!” He said again, when the waiter brought out their appetizer. Peter gave the waiter a thumbs up; Cynthia cringed. Oysters. On the half shell. Raw. Glistening globs drenched in their own puddle of, what was that she wondered, oyster juice? Peter’s hands flashed in front of her as he squeezed lemons and ground pepper and set out tiny forks.

“The best in the city!” He said. “Aphrodisiac,” he winked. All she had to do was eat just one. He lit up and spoke of Italy and the first time he ate them raw. She cooed on the outside but grimaced on the inside.

He picked up a shell and shimmied the oyster into his mouth and down his throat. He groaned. She shivered. But, what choice did she have? It was the oyster, or Peter. Or, the oyster and Peter. Either way, she told herself, she had to do it. She surveyed the platter for the smallest one. She picked up the shell and held up her hand. In a few seconds, it would all be over.

“To us,” she said, and she gripped the seat of her chair.

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Buckle up and put on your thinking cap.

The beginning of the new year brought me writer’s angst, flashes of hope here and there, and news of a very busy work schedule.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Sign Language Interpreter in real life. One of the challenges in my line of work is that I can’t interpret what I don’t know. That means, for the next several months, my brain will be steeped in outside reading materials to help carry me through my schedule. What that doesn’t mean is a full stop on writing.

I am, however, taking a brief hiatus from my Wednesday’s Word of the Day challenge.

I love that writing exercise (and maybe I’ll jump back into it sooner than I anticipate), but I also love my day job…for obvious reasons (that monthly paycheck and, oh yeah, health insurance). So, here’s where you come in. You keep this blog alive just by reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what types of posts will keep you coming back :

I can’t make you take the poll, but it is anonymous. And, even if you say “Thank god for the hiatus,” I’ll still love you.

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You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should to rethink my use of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern. He says, “A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”

I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed getting  a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: narrative. He says:

Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: fight the urge to narrate…A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking. So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?

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