[Write On Wednesday] Got the Patter?

Last night my local writing group held a Reading Night. It was a wonderful thing.

For one thing the participants got to read their stories to an appreciative audience who simply wanted to have fun (as opposed to sending their story to an editor or a critique partner who is looking for things to reject).

And for another, there were some experienced performers in the group, who gave feedback and tips on the actual performance part of the reading. Invaluable stuff.

Reading your work is something you’ll be called upon to do as published author, so practice the skill (very different from writing!) as often as you can!

Last night’s reading prompted this, er prompt, because so many of the characters came alive when they had a distinctive voice, a distinctive patois. One story featured a rising politician, who used all the kinds of phrases you might expect of a rising sleazebag politician.

Another story featured a 1968 California Happening dude, who talked just like you would expect (expertly performed by a man who looked the right age to have been there.)

These stories, more than all the others, stuck with me because of the authenticity of the character’s voice. And that’s what I want you to practice this week.

MISO

The Prompt

Give Your Character A Distinctive Voice

Tips

  • Make your character have a job or a background with a specific set of jargon (for example: a stock broker would sound very different from a tuned-in, turned-on dude from 1968 Haight-Ashbury)
  • Get them into conversation with another character as soon as possible and see if you can keep their voices so distinct that you rarely have to write ‘he said’.
  • Concentrate on the rhythms of speech and the special phrases or jargon your character might use.
  • How would your character deliver their lines? Tentatively? With lots of preamble? Stridently? Rather than using these adverbs, let your characters use words that capture the content of their character
  • If you need more inspiration watch a supercut of Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin and try to capture that kind of vigor in the words you put in the characters’ mouths! (But set a timer, so you don’t end up disappearing down a YouTube rabbit hole…)

If you share you story somewhere (and here’s why you might not want to) post a link here so we can come and read it.

Leave a comment to let us know what you wrote about today, and how it went!

The Power of Being Vulnerable

Last Wednesday I was an invited speaker at a reading featuring local authors.

I got some laughs (phew!) and sold some books. It took nerve to do it, but I’m so glad I did.

In the breaks, I talked to other writers whose stories I had enjoyed immensely. And guess what? They knew who I was and told me they’d enjoyed my story. Some of them even asked questions about the status of the novel I’d read from at a similar event five months ago.

Can you imagine how that felt?

These great writers and performers remembered my work?!

Some of these writers have connections with a wider circle of writers in the area, some of whom are pretty big deals in their genres.

And now I have a connection to that wider world.

I want to talk to you today about how you can build and expand on YOUR network of writers

I got my opportunity because of a tiny decision I made about 8 years ago, to turn up at a local writers’ group’s critique night.

That group has been one of the best ways for me to get embedded in the local writing scene, and a wider writing scene. We share tips about conferences, contests, scholarships, events, blogs we’ve liked, podcasts we’ve discovered, basically anything to do with improving our craft. Sometimes we become friends

But Julie, I hear you say, I thought you said it was a critique group.

It is!

There’s a vulnerability and trust in the act of sharing your work, that encourages deep connections to grow.

I know I’m lucky. I live in a densely-populated area with lots of over-educated people, many of whom want to write.

You may not be so lucky.

Except that you are, because we live in the future, and we can do almost anything online that my group does in the physical world.

And this is the bit where I finally get to the point.

This time last year I offered a ten-day online critique group. A dozen writers showed up, critiqued each other’s work and received a full critique of a story (or 3000 words of a longer piece) from me and at least three other members of the group.

And I’m doing it again this year. Jun 21-28 is our next Critique ‘Week’.

You can sign up between now and Jun 21, 2018, but I’m not sure when this opportunity will come around again. We did it last year and it was a great experience.

If you want in, sign up now!

[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

Short Story Reading Challenge

You know I love a challenge.

It’s going to be harder to write during the summer months, with boys underfoot and trips to here there and everywhere (bonjour, Bretagne!), so I’m going to spend my summer months feeding the creative monster.

I’ve been finding it hard to write recently, partly because my brain is begin pulled in fifteen different directions. I’m feeding it with information — about education, about fitness, about nutrition, about cognitive behavioural therapies, about music, about all kinds of practical stuff — but I’m not feeding it with the kinds of stories it needs to lift itself out of the everyday world and into the world of stories.

JulieReadingSo I’m going back to the Bradbury Method of creativity-boosting. I did this last summer and it worked like a charm: I read a new story every day (and an essay and a poem as often as I could manage that) and found myself drowning in ideas. I had a burning urge to write; I sketched out ideas for stories; I wrote some of them over the next six months and released them as Kindle ebooks that have sold actual copies and generated actual profits. I have others that are still in various stages of drafting. But more than all that I was happy.

Follow Along?

So that’s what I’m going to do: Read a short story a day during June, July, August. I’m logging my activity at my personal writing blog and you can follow along by pointing your RSS reader here: http://www.julieduffy.com/category/read/ (I use Feedly on my iPad, phone and computer to keep up with the feeds of blogs I love. I highly recommend it. remember the old Livejournal friends view? It’s like that. Or the Facebook status update view without, you know, Facebook). Or you can Subscribe to Julie Duffy Reading (& stuff) by Emailand get a daily update of all my reading-related posts (some days it’ll just be the title of the story. Some days it’ll be a potted review, and frankly it might get kind of annoying, so use this method with caution). You might just want to bookmark my reading log and check it out for yourself (currently it’s mostly full of stuff I read last summer)

And feel free to join me. Leave comments, link to what you’re reading, start your own Reading challenge and blog…

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[OK, I realize this badge is hopelessly Northern-Hemisphere elitist, and I apologize. I’ll make a change when I have a chance. Or you can use your Photoshop-Fu to put a white box over the ‘summer’ part…]

Your Own Reading Log

I’m using Google Docs to log my reading.

Here’s a copy of the form that you can use youself if you want to join in and you like Google Docs. Copy this form to your own Google Drive and rename it.

If you click on “Form / Go To Live Form” you’ll see a nice clean interface for entering your info. It’ll update the spreadsheet automatically (no silly little cells to click on).

If you’re an iPhone user, you can follow these steps to get a nice app-like link on your phone, to make logging your reading easier (I’m a big fan of ‘easy’)
Step 1:

Go to your form on in your browser (drive.google.com/)

Then:

 

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Then

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Then

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Voilà!

 

Just make sure you save a copy of this document to your own Google Drive and don’t work on my copy, OK?

[Reading Room] Victory Lap by George Saunders


OK, so everyone’s been raving about this collection, The Tenth of December by George Saunders.

I’m such a skeptic about hype that it was with some trepidation that I plunked down my money and opened the book.

But: wow. If the first story is anything to go on, this is going to be one fabulous collection.

Victory Lap is a supreme example of ‘show, don’t tell’. If you’ve ever wondered what that piece of well-worn advice means, run to your bookshelf and grab this (you probably bought it when people were first raving about it instead of,  like me, pretending to be too cool).

The story starts in the voice of a fourteen year old girl who is coming down the stairs in her house, consumed with her own, fourteen-year-old fantasies of herself: still childlike but on the verge of adult-issues. It so thoroughly captures the inner voice of a teenage girl that it is disorienting, but you adjust quite quickly.

Just as you’re getting comfortable with this voice, it switches into the head of the boy next door, who our hero has spotted through the window, just before the inciting incident of the story.

The boy next door is equally well-realized, equally complex and oh, so painfully awkward. Told only in his inner thoughts, the author builds up a picture of his home-life: the only child of extremely protective, ambitious and unbearable parents; a good boy whose parents are (perhaps unwittingly) perverting that goodness.

I defy you to read this story and not root for the two kids; not have your blood run cold at the thought of what might happen if things don’t go the way you fervently hope they will. Aargh!

 

Not only does Saunders get right inside the heads of these kids, he brings you along, shows so much without once ‘telling’, and makes you empathize to the point that you’re thinking dark thoughts about what you’ll do to the author if things don’t turn out ‘right’ (or was that just me?).

 

And that, my friends, is the mark of an excellent story: suck the reader in, make them care, don’t spoon feed them the details, make something happen; make it matter; raise the stakes; write an ending that forces the reader to go on thinking about the ramifications of the events in the story for your characters, long after they’ve finished the story.

Oh, and go and buy a copy of this collection if you haven’t already!

 

[Reading Room] The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Heminway


Two confessions:

1, I’ve never read any Hemingway before.

2, I was kind of surprised to find this in collection of short stories. I had always assumed it was a novel.

Having found it however, and having been told by someone I respect that it was the worst thing he’d ever read, I HAD to give it a try.

My first impressions were that I was going to hate this. It was boring. Nothing happened. The dialogue was silted and the relationship between the old man and the boy was faintly disturbing (probably because of everything that’s been in the news recently). I didn’t care about either of them.

I Almost Gave Up

But then the old man got out on the sea and I thought, well, this is faintly interesting; I know nothing about fishing so I’ll just keep reading for a while and see what I learn.

And then, by the time the old man has chased the first school of fish (and failed) and then he sees a second school, I realized that I was rooting for him: I wanted him to succeed and I would have to keep reading to find out whether or not he did.

Reader-Hat, Writer Hat

And that, I realized, was because I had finally I started to learn some things about the old man himself. I learned them when Hemingway shared the old man’s thoughts and perceptions of himself.

From a reader’s perspective I had started to see this old man as wiry and humble and driven and, as such, intriguing.

From a writer’s perspective, I noticed that when the character had thoughts or analysed himself, or talked to himself, I learned as much from the subtext as I did from his thoughts. This is one of those “let the character say one thing and demonstrate another” lessons. It was enough to intrigue me.

Feeling Inspired?
Why not try writing a short story that focuses on character?
Use one of these writing prompts

The Stakes

And then I saw what Hemingway had done with that ‘boring’ introduction: before the old man even sets out I know that the old man is hanging on to life by a thread, that he hasn’t caught a fish for 84 days, that anyone else would have give up by now, that he is determined to succeed (will he?) and that both he and the boy want to work together again. So I had a hint about his character and I understood what was at stake. B the time he starts to fish in earnest, because I’ve come to admire the old man, I care.

(But it strikes me that readers in the 1950s must have been more patient than we are today. Or maybe he was just writing for a more literary audience and you could still get away with this if you are writing for the same audience. But most of the writing advice I read stresses the importance of making  the reader care about the character straight away, like in the first paragraph. Article upon article says it’s ‘wrong’ to start with dialogue because “Who cares?”; that we mustn’t start with the weather or the landscape, because “who cares?” Maybe that’s one of those ‘writing rules’ that we can stop worrying about so much. It depends on what genre you’re writing in of course, but if it’s holding you up from writing the rest of your story, just remember the opening doesn’t have to be perfect…ever, apparently, as long as the rest of your story works.)

On, On Through The Night

So, just as the old man fishes through the night, I read on. And I started to really care. And, then I started to despair with him. And then came the ending, which wasn’t pat or tied up with a ribbon but still managed to satisfy. I have read so many modern stories that try to ape this ‘no neat endings’ thing, but instead leave the reader unsatisfied. “The Old Man And The Sea” does not peter out. It does not end neatly. It feels like real life and we don’t know what happens next, but it does have a satisfying ending.

And I can see why this story is a bit of a masterpiece.

What a pleasant surprise.

What Are The Last Three Books You Opened?

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to write in the summer. My kids are off school, my friends are calling, people come to visit…

I still write, but I scale back my ambitions. And I use the snatches of time I do have, to read.

But not just anything. I’m cutting back on reading ABOUT writing, and focussing more on readiung some great writing by the masters.

So, what are the last three books I opened?


Poems by Robert Frost

I’m trying to read a poem a day, so I picked up this volume of Frost poems and it fell open to After Apple Picking. I didn’t love it at first but I read it (slowly) a couple of times more and wrote it out once. I still didn’t love it, but I did find it a useful exercise and got much more out of it that way.

The Great English Short-Story Writers, Volume 1
I read Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement, which left me with a strong sense of the history of the short story and what a robust form it really is.


Cooked by Michael Pollan

I’ve always enjoyed Michael Pollan’s writing style. It really proves that anything can be interesting if the writer has a passion for it and that all good writing is storytelling.

Bonus Fourth Book:


The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) by Rick Riordan

My eight year old and I are reading it together at bedtime. Mostly I read it but sometimes he reads it. We love reading out loud. Do/did you still read to children once they can read for themselves?

How about you? Leave a comment telling us what were the last three books you opened.

[Reading Room] – Heart of a Champion by T. C. Boyle

“Heart of a Champion” takes the reader from the opening credits to the close of an old (fictional) Lassie serial.

It is fascinating tutorial for those of us who have absorbed most of our ‘short stories’ in the form of TV shows or webisodes or through other visual media. It demonstrates quite nimbly, how to move from a visual image to the written word. It’d be worth reading for that alone, even if it wasn’t beautifully written and laugh-out-loud funny, too.

Another great feature of this story is that it parodies a much-loved show but goes beyond simple goofing around with the predictability of the TV show. The author thinks hard about the question of ‘what if it didn’t have to end the way it always had to end?’. He comments, subtly on what the show said about the characters who sleep-walked their way through it and the society that it was created by and that it reflected.

If you are heavily influenced by movies or TV shows, read this story, then write a story that contains similarly cinematic images.

If you are attempting a parody, take a close look at what this story does to do more than simply turn into a ‘skit’ and instead become a whole, novel piece of art.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Orange by Neil Gaiman


One of the things I love about short stories is the way they can play with form. They are, at their best, unpredictable. “Orange” by Neil Gaiman (which I found in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2011 anthology)  is a perfect illustration.

Written in the form of answers to a police interrogation, the story never actually tells you what those questions were, leaving you to both speculate and laugh out loud at times. It unfolds gradually from the shallow answers given by a teenaged girl about her less-than-perfect homelife, to something much more complex and true. And funny and touching and hopeful and sad.

That the protagonist is answering a interrogation tells you immediately that something has gone wrong and you read in part to find out what. But after a while, as I often find with Neil Gaiman’s writing, you are reading just for the sheer joy of it. His use of language and character are masterful, engaging and accessible.

After reading this story, I immediately called over my precocious nine-year old son and read it again, over his shoulder. Upon finishing, he flipped back to the start to read it again too. It’s like that.

Highly recommended if you feel you’re getting into a rut with your short story writing and need some inspiration for a shake up. Or if you just want to read a fine, well-written short story.

[Tuesday Reading Room] “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker

A guest post by regular contributor Jami who is reading a story a day throughout 2012.. This week: “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker.

This week’s post is a guest post by regular contributor Jami
who is reading a story a day throughout 2012 over at Worth The Effort. This week: “A Telephone Call” by Dorothy Parker.

Suffering.

A woman questions God about why a lover hasn’t called her at the time he said he’d call. The pleading and negotiating she does which is clearly inner dialogue is painfully realistic and honest and it exposes the vulnerable side of every woman when she is in the first phase of a relationship.

Will he call?
Should I call him?
What will he think if I call him?
Will he hate me if I call?
How long should I wait for his call?
What happens if he doesn’t call?
Why didn’t he call?

WOW, Dorothy Parker really blew me away with this story. It was made more potent with its brevity and with an ending that leaves the reader counting down the seconds until the woman makes a decision and answers her own questions.

My guess about the ultimate resolution?

She calls.
He doesn’t answer.

Here is a link:
http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/teleycal.html

(c)2012 Jami Balkom