Reading Like a Writer: “I Stand Here Ironing”

From “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen: “She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who ‘could no longer endure’ (he wrote in his good-bye note) ‘sharing want with us.’”

This is a great, great story. Such a good story to read and reread. Here are a few thoughts on this sentence:

  • Context matters. In this case, two characters are talking about a third, named for the first time here. Emily’s mother is describing her to a teacher or truant officer. The context implies a danger for the daughter and perhaps for the mother in that her relationship with her daughter might be at risk if she is honest. Her own happiness might be at risk if she is dishonest with this authority figure.
  • Create tension within a sentence using contrasting words and phrases: “miracle to me” and “no miracle at all,” “worked or looked for work,” looking for Emily’s father who left a goodbye note, and “sharing want.” Characters who have only a lack in common can be fascinating. “All we have together are our arguments.” Can disagreements be enough to sustain a relationship? Can the tension within a paradox keep folks together? How?
  • The sentence is a sort of summary of a childhood or an important part of a childhood. Such a summary can leave readers with an implied question they read to answer: What happened to Emily? To her mother? Their relationship?
  • One sentence can characterize, to different degrees, its speaker, “the woman downstairs,” Emily, Emily’s father and perhaps, as an answer to a question, the asker of that question.
  • The sentence also implies the theme of the story (or a possible theme): economic realities shape lives to a greater degree than most want to know.
  • The sentence uses quoted language to characterize. The father “could no longer endure . . . sharing want with us.” The brief quotation suggests a great deal about the character and his ethics and values. Her response to his note (she goes looking for him) also characterizes.

It might take a paragraph, it might take an entire story, but consider trying to draft language that does as much as this sentence and is as interesting.

Reading Like a Writer: Reading Like a Writer 

Focused on how writers learn to write, here are a pair of interesting sentences. “They [writers] studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, and endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”

These sentences are from Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, an excellent, excellent book.

What might we learn as writers from these sentences? The context they provide each other and contrast between them help make each of them even more interesting. They are almost from different genres: history and horror. (Undead teachers? Certainly frightening.) The end of the second sentence, at least for me, comes as a nice surprise.

Consider the structures of the sentences. The first is a list of specifics which acts as a kind of assertion about how writing has and can be learned: absorbing lucid sentence. The second is a generalization, followed by another list of characteristics, and a surprise.

I want to try at least the structures. “We baked with Julia, fried with Guy, boiled with Gordon; we learned about food in the graceful kitchens of Rachel Ray and Anthony Bourdain. And could there be better meals: ample, beautiful, favored with flavor and skill, and as free of calories as only the televised can be?”

It’s a bit more of a pastiche than I’d like, not sure about the tone, and probably reveals how little I know about cooking, but does suggest how useful attending to sentences can be.

Learning from “The Zebra Storyteller”

“The Zebra Storyteller” by Spencer Hoist is an outstanding narrative. Here it is:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing. Isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why—he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began to boast to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ‘em laugh!”

Just then, the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

There is so much to learn from this as writers. Here are few thoughts:

  1. The first four words of the first sentence let readers know the genre and that in turn creates expectations for them. The rest of the first sentence presents the premise of the story. That premise implies a question.
  2. The last sentence of the story, as it provides a moral, meets the expectations created by the first four words. The last sentence in the story also reminds readers of the title. Reminders or echoes can help bring closure. 
  3. The second sentence of the story gives readers a setting and interesting language.
  4. The first two words of the third sentence create immediacy. The rest of that sentence characterizes a zebra. 
  5. The paragraph after that is a tiny scene in which the Siamese cat and the zebra interact. The story takes a phrase literally in the next paragraph because the zebra is fit to be tied. (I believe it was in The Artful Edit that I first heard the phrase “surprise is the drug of editors.”) 
  6. Janet Burroway, among others, describes powershifts as part of plotting, and by the sixth paragraph the little cat has the power in the story. 
  7. The next two paragraphs characterize the cat and the paragraph after that characterizes the zebras. It also suggests the implications of how the characters’ world has changed because of the cat’s actions. Language stays interesting, even suggesting a larger history/world building.
  8. The next paragraph introduces a change or difference in the story because this zebra is the storyteller of the zebras, reminding readers of the beginning of the story and the first scene in which the Siamese cat appears. The cat’s language in this paragraph echoes that used with the first zebra that died at his hands. Knowing the zebra storyteller is in danger, tension increases for readers.
  9. Powershifts back, however, because the zebra storyteller is not alarmed by the cat. In the second to last paragraph of the story, power has shifted irrevocably providing a climactic moment.

Consider trying one or many of these techniques in a way that pays homage to Hoist.

Learning from Bellairs

Consider what we can learn from the first paragraph of the first chapter of John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost. Here it is:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

The first sentence includes at least one implied question. If readers know Prospero from Shakespeare, they are likely to feel congratulated for their knowledge and wonder who this other Prospero might be, if it’s not the one they’re thinking of. If readers don’t know Shakespeare, they will wonder both who this Prospero is and who the one they don’t know is as well. In either case, readers begin the story with an implied question, one they may not even be completely conscious of. They are likely to read on, hoping for an answer. There’s also in the very last phrase of the first sentence an effort to connect, without being smarmy, with readers.

The rest of the paragraph describes the house this character lives in, in ways that create a little bit of distance between the narrator and the character. The description of the house also lets readers know a little bit about the genre or at least suggests it. It helps shape expectations. At the least readers expect a story about eccentricity. The Face in the Frostquickly lets readers know it is a fantasy that does not take itself too seriously.

We might try the following similar techniques in our own work:

  • Begin with an implied question. 
  • Begin with a classical allusion and compliment readers who understand it while creating curiosity in readers who do not. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character and let that description characterize the character. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character but let the description create distance between the narrator and the character. 
  • Use an abundance of details and sensory language and unusual images to create interest in anything you are describing.

Learning from “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”

Here is a brief quotation from The 2015 Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology, specifically from “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” a short story by Neil Gaiman:

In addition to its unusual pockets, it had magnificent sleeves, an imposing collar, and a slit up the back. It was made of some kind of leather, it was the color of a wet street at midnight, and, more important than any of these things, it had style. (134)

The metaphor used to describe the coat’s color stands out more than the other details because, even though it is a comparison, it is more specific: the street is wet at midnight. The other details include some information, but not particularizing information. The coat has pockets and those pockets are unusual, for example, but that language isn’t as interesting as the metaphor. It quickly stands in for the coat as a whole.

The coat and the main character’s desire to have it back reveals the marquis to the reader and provides a motivation. Seeking after the coat moves the story forward and provides the character with at least two problems to solve or be helped out of. The coat is useful in the story then, and you might use a similar strategy in one of your stories. But, in addition to this, Gaiman uses that interesting metaphor at least two other times in the story. Once he uses it as its own sentence, which surely highlights it: “The coat was the color of a wet street at midnight” (152). One of the character’s enemies is wearing the coat when that sentence appears. The metaphor appears again once the character has recovered the coat: “. . . the last of the flock wore a most magnificent coat. It fit him perfectly, and it was the color of a wet street at night” (156).

In addition to the ways the coat and the metaphor are useful in the story that have already been mentioned, readers remember it. The triggering of that memory when the metaphor appears again is pleasant in the way knowing or realizing something can be. This use of the metaphor is also similar to what some screenwriters call “superior knowledge,” when readers or viewers know or have information characters lack, but it is different in an important way. Having information characters lack can help us be concerned for them, but it also creates a difference between readers and characters. In the case of Gaiman’s story, because readers know the Marquis knows what his coat looks like—the color of a wet street at midnight—the information connects readers and the main character. The return of the metaphor joins readers and the character in contrast with superior knowledge while allowing them to be concerned for the main character.

Repeating the metaphor also allows Gaiman to mark important plot points. Finally, the metaphor acts as a refrain and repeating that refrain helps close the story.

Consider giving this a try.

Thickening

Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel. It felt thin in spots. It’s hard to describe perfectly, but rereading it, I found myself thinking, “There should be more there” about some pages and scenes. In some cases, I’d written dialogue but it wasn’t revealing a character’s thoughts. Or, the dialogue lacked context in the form of setting or actions that the characters took while they were speaking. The draft was also shorter than I wanted it to be. It was under 50,000 words.

I decided that the main goal of the next draft would be to address both the thin spots and the length. Happy with the plot, adding a subplot or another character seemed like a bad idea. Instead, I think I was influenced by the Oulipo group’s larding exercise.

If you’re facing similar concerns with a complete draft of yours, try this:

  1. Determine the number of words you’d like your final draft to be. This number is your goal.
  2. Subtract the number of words of your current draft from that goal. This is the number of words you lack.
  3. Divide that lack by the current number of pages of your draft. The resulting number is your target number.
  4. Read through the draft again. Add—in some way that helps your draft—your target number in words to each page.

For example, let’s say you’d like a draft to be 50,000, but it is currently 45,000. The difference between those numbers is 5,000. Your 45,000-word draft is 85 single-spaced pages. Divide 5,000 by 85 and you need to add about 59 words to each page to reach your goal.

The crucial thing is finding ways to add those sixty words that help the draft. For example, I reviewed ways of making setting interesting and my characters’ backstories before I started. The words I added improved characterization and setting as a result.

Quick, quick, quick, slow

Here are some steps toward a quick rough draft. Pick one or two from the quick beginning section, several from the quick middles section, and any option from the quick endings section.

Quick beginnings:

  • Start with an interesting bit of language
    1. Something you overheard eavesdropping or
    2. A phrase that is stuck in your head
  • Start with a character’s name and with that character doing something
  • Put something you like in the story
  • Put a thing or situation that makes you nervous in the story
  • Start with an accusation or an interdiction

Quick middles:

  • Make things
    1. Complicated for the main character
    2. Worse for the main character
  • Show power shift as a result of a character’s action
  • Let characters think about
    1. Their actions
    2. The events of the story
    3. Another character
  • Show power shift again as a result of an action
  • Show power shifting once more
  • Coincidences and dreams
    1. Can get characters into trouble
    2. But never out of it

Quick endings:

  • Show power shifting irrevocably
    1. Always with the main character as a primary witness
    2. As a result of the character’s action
  • Show at least one of the following
    1. A process begun earlier in the story is completed
    2. A restatement/return/echo of language from earlier in the story
  • Clearly show a change in the character or a reversal of roles
  • Resolve the question of “what’s going to happen” in a brief summary

Slow:

  • Revise
  • Revise again

The shrunken draft

I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but creating a “shrunken draft” can be a way to get to know a long draft.

  1. Ask yourself what specific element of fiction writing would you like the next draft of your narrative to focus on.
  2. Highlight that specific element of fiction writing in an electronic copy of your rough draft. For example, highlight scenes in green. Points of view, descriptions, different “times,” foreshadowing, even specific words could be highlighted. However, highlighting more than one or two elements at a time can be confusing.
  3. Reduce the font to the smallest size you’re comfortable with.
  4. Reduce the margins.
  5. Find and click on the View Multiple Pages feature of your word processing program. Continue making these and similar adjustments until you can see as much of your document as possible.
  6. Consider the ratio of highlighted to not-highlighted text. Perhaps contrasting colors reveal long sections of description and few scenes, for example. Or, a narrative you thought shared points of view evenly between two characters does not.
  7. Do the ratios your shrunken draft reveals please you? Do they fit into your expectations for the draft? What do you need to do to address differences between what you’ve got and what you’d like to have?

 

Toward a conclusion

Here is an excerpt from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The excerpt is from late in the book, in the last few pages of the edition I have. I like the way it models a conclusion, and I’ll try and do something similar with the project I’m working on.

Fourteen months had passed, but Margaret still stopped at Howards End. No better plan had occurred to her. The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her year after year. Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now. She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie’s rockery, where the lawn merged into the field.

So, here are some obvious fiction writing strategies, just in this excerpt, that bring readers toward the conclusion. The passage of time is stated directly and connected to a specific place and character in the first sentence. The second sentence restates that connection to the character. The third sentence suggests the past and present in an ongoing natural process associated with the environment: “The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden.” The fourth sentence strengthens these connections, repeating them with minor and more specific differences. The fifth sentence is shorter than those around it, more general, but also connects the natural repeating processes with the character. The sixth sentence is one of the longest, is specific about the place and how it influences the character. A short seventh sentence contrasts with the previous one both in terms of length and its content: “. . .  a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now.” The last sentence focuses readers back on the characters’ present moment, using setting, and prepares for, creates an expectation of, one of the final scenes.

Below is a rough attempt to use some of the same strategies. I’m not moving toward another scene, and though I’ve got a smaller cast of characters, more of them are present as I try to wrap things up.

Eighteen months later, after Reynolds remarried, just the three of them still lived in the townhouse. Asking Elizabeth to move out was as strange an idea as asking her to stop using her feet and walk on her hands all day instead. The tiny garden they shared still needed replanting; the compost pile needed turning, little as it was. October would arrive and they would have to clean the gutters and downspouts. In December, they had to keep the walk and deck free of snow and ice. Billy would post photos of them working. The routines they set for themselves were part of how they stayed together. Every summer they would consider new air conditioning, every winter a new furnace. As Billy lost more hair he wore one cap to keep him warm and another to stop sunburn. As Cassandra got older she wrapped blankets tight to stay warm and drank ice water to stay cool, all within the same five minutes.

When Elizabeth finally moved in with one of her boyfriends, the townhouse became too tranquil, too quiet. Together they finally discovered the peace of an empty nest, but without ever having had children.

 

 

 

Planning characters

One way to characterize is for your character to make a plan. The kind of plan the character makes, the level of formality with which it is made, how the character responds when things go according to their plan, how they respond when things do not, what they do when their plan is criticized, who they share their plan with, how their setting influences their plan, how they think about and enact it, and how they revise it, all these things characterize. They also provide a plot.

The plan does not have to be to destroy or save the world. It could be to cross a room for a drink of water, but it ought to be important to your character for reasons your reader can understand.

Try drafting one.