Reading Like a Writer: T. Kingfisher

“If you have ever tried to stay afloat on a pair of magic bread slices, then you know what it’s like.”

from A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

The equally delightful sentences before this one provide some context. Basically, the main character is trying to escape pursuers and persuades two pieces of bread to act as tiny pontoons (one for each foot) so she can cross a river.

Here are some thoughts about this sentence:

  • This is an excellent example of incidental, non-infodump worldbuilding. It appears organically in the text. It is not boring or long. It does not impede the narrative’s momentum. The best worldbuilding happens similarly.
  • An impossibility for readers is not one for characters. This creates surprise for readers out of the mundane for a character. The subtext, or the character’s assumption, is something like “You might have done this. What? No?” That assumption of the possibility of common experience–even this experience–helps create a closeness between readers and this character.
  • The cliche “you know what it’s like” does at least two things. The first is a surprise as readers realize that no, they can’t know what it is like. The second is an appealing gesture of good faith: What’s possible for me might be possible for you. The characterization in the gesture of good faith outweighed any distancing caused by the realization that the character and I are in different worlds. I was instead charmed by it.

Consider an mundane possibility for a character of yours that is probably impossible for readers. How might it be casually, incidentally presented in a way that indicates good faith and community?

Remember the best part

I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part.

–Anne Lamott

Learning from William Faulkner

That title is misleading since it would be easy to teach a class on Faulkner (indeed, people do) and this it just one post. I do recommend reading his work as a Creative Writing textbook. Even a sentence is a good place to start.

From The Sound and the Fury, “His hands were jabbing at my face and he was saying something and trying to bite me, I reckon, and then they hauled him off and held him heaving and thrashing and yelling and they held his arms and he tried to kick me until they dragged him back.”

Trying to read this as a writer, here are some thoughts.

  • I have not written many violent physical confrontations, but this sentence seems to emphasize the visual images of a character in a specific moment rather than fight choreography. In other words, rather than a second-by-second description of who was where when, readers are within one of the character’s consciousnesses.
  • This sentence characterizes both the character being attacked and the one attacking. Faulkner gives us the experience through words his character would choose, through the vocabulary of a specific character: “reckon,” “thrashing,” repetition, and the alliteration of “held him heaving.” Described actions characterize the attacker, whose “hands were jabbing,” “trying to bite,” and, once they held his arms, he kicked.
  • The conventional wisdom in Creative Writing seems to be that events that happen quickly are best presented in many short sentence (see, for example, Heather Sellers’s excellent The Practice of Creative Writing : “. . . you use short sentences to indicate fast-paced action . . . And when you want to slow down the pace, in order to show a process that is taking place over a long period of time, use a long sentence” [203]). But, I wonder. Here is Faulkner again in short sentences:
    • His hands were jabbing at my face. He was saying something. He tried to bite me, I reckon. Then they hauled him off. He heaved and thrashed and yelled. They held his arms. He tried to kick me. They dragged him back.
    • Perhaps the experience of reading these short sentences and the moment being described contrast too sharply for me, but the periods jerk the fast-paced action to a stop. That Faulkner’s longer sentence doesn’t stop gives the experience of reading it and what it describes greater speed than the shorter sentences.
  • Since I’ve quoted Sellers above, I’ll also mention the excellent Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively by Hans Ostrom, Wendy Bishop, and Katharine Haake. More specifically, their exercise “Sentence Sounds: Exploring the ‘Conjunctive’ and ‘Disjunctive,'” on 171-173, mentions Faulkner in interesting ways.

Grimly determined

“I was turned down for ten years. I couldn’t get a thing in print. My writing went nowhere. I guess you have to be persistent. Talent is just one element of the writing business. You also have to have a stubborn nature. That’s rarer even than the talent, I think. You have to be grimly determined. I certainly was disappointed; I got upset. But you have to go back to the desk again, to the mailbox once more, and await your next refusal.”

—William Gass, from a 1995 interview with BOMB

Fundamentals

“‘I simply imagined,’ [Faulkner said of As I Lay Dying] ‘ a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes which are flood and fire with a simple natural motive [burial] to give direction to their progress'” (111).

Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction

Learning from Steve Martin

This is the first sentence from one of his novels, An Object of Beauty:

I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.

What writing strategies does it suggest?

  • A character’s fairly direct statement of desire can be an effective hook, but this sentence includes, more interestingly, conflicting desires. The character seems to both want to forget Lacy and to think about her deeply enough to have written about her.
  • The sentence presents movement from one state of mind (“tired”), to another (“worry”), to a third (a dedication to a task/desire). “Yet” bridges two of these states of mind. “Unless” gives not completing the task or fulfilling the desire a consequence for the character. The sentence feels like a plan and includes something at risk for the character. Readers are likely to read on to see if the character gets what they want and how the plan unfolds.
  • The sentence also characterizes. The character, at least so far, feels comfortable trying to tell this story and hopes to see it “bound and tidy” on a shelf.

Learning from Jeanette Winterson

From The Passion:

It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy.

Odd to be so governed by an appetite.

I read these paragraphs while on study abroad in London about thirty years ago. I bought the book immediately. Here are some thoughts.

  • Direct statement by the author can characterize effectively. This first sentence humanizes a historical figure or at least reveals surprising information about him, true or not. But it also raises several interesting implied questions, some of which the novel answers and some of which it does not. (Napoleon? Chicken? Of all his passions, this one? Is this the passion of the title?)
  • While direct statements can characterize, this beginning uses far more than that strategy. The first sentence presents implied questions. It also suggests a setting (the kitchen), an ongoing process (cooking the birds), and that process characterizes (chickens must be ready on demand, no matter how wasteful).
  • The location in time (Napoleon’s day) and more specifically (the kitchen) are presented almost incidentally in the first sentence. The second sentence gives readers images.
  • The second paragraph begins to characterize the narrator/main character and might raise philosophical questions. (The narrating character finds it odd to be so governed by appetite? Or is it the kitchen that is oddly governed by an appetite to please Napoleon?)
  • These paragraphs also introduce a community of at least Napoleon, chefs, the speaker, and perhaps the chickens.

Learning from Kirstin Valdez Quade

Not long ago, I finished The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade. It is a very good novel. When trying to read like a writer, I’m working to notice not just sentence-level techniques but larger narrative structures as well. Here are some thoughts on that level about The Five Wounds.

Since there are spoilers here, it might be best to read the book before reading this post.

  • Religion is a real part of the characters’ lives. It influences how they feel about themselves, their drinking, their children, plot events, and their own and each other’s actions. I’ve no idea how Valdez Quade feels about religion, but she uses it to round her characters. Specifically, her use of religion reminds me of Faulkner’s phrase from his Nobel Prize speech: “the human heart in conflict with itself” alone is worth writing about.
  • Consider variations on tropes. Valdez Quade uses a terminal illness as a ticking clock. Initially, the ill character won’t get treated and won’t ever tell others (including friends, children, and grandchildren) that she might die. Along with other methods of characterization, the emotional danger this represents to other characters was scary, fascinating, and seemed like likely behavior.
  • Another variation has to do with entrepreneurship. “Get a Job,” from Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, suggests ways the economic realities characters face can be useful for writers. Valdez Quade builds on this. A character’s efforts to provide plays a significant role in the novel. It presents real tension in several scenes.
  • Consider the reactions of flat, almost-part-of-the-setting characters. In The Five Wounds, a bored medical student is in the background, playing with a stethoscope, while the attending physician delivers a diagnosis. The diagnosis is specific medical jargon that neither most readers nor the character being diagnosed can understand, but the medical student does. The student suddenly stops playing when hearing the diagnosis. That reaction and the doctor’s seriousness shows the significance of the diagnosis.
  • I’m generally wary of flashbacks. Obviously, the content of flashbacks can characterize. So too, at least as Valdez Quade uses them, can the number of flashbacks. Younger characters have very few. Despite their tramas, they live in the present. Older characters seem to spend most of their time in the past. Much more often than the younger characters, they live there. The extent to which characters live in the past can significantly differentiate them from each other for readers.

Short Perfect Novels

One of the many benefits of reading The Sentence by Louise Erdrich is that, in addition to being an excellent novel, it includes a list of short (about 200 pages or two hours to read) novels. Once my current stack of books is a little shorter, I’ll try reading or rereading books on this list.

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow-Line by Jospeh Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Haien
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Abstractions and details

The writing that interests readers in poems or prose is usually low on the scale of abstraction. It is writing that presents concrete details and avoids abstract generalities or commentary. Abstractions are necessary in some cases, but more often interesting writing avoids them. When the details are presented so that they remind readers of their senses and perceptions, they are more engaging. When the details are presented so that they evoke the memory of senses and perceptions and the importance of those details are obvious to a character or persona, they are even more engaging and interesting for readers.

Consider the following from Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry: “Instead of the abstraction nutriment, one might use such an image as ‘juicy cheeseburger on dark rye with dill pickle.’ What concrete images can you think of that might be used to stand for the following abstractions: exercise, amusement, wretchedness, locality, velocity, attraction, dryness, spiciness, agitation, deception, insufficiency, authority, success?”

Think about the following quotations as you work:

Elias Canetti . . . had declared that “Among the most sinister phenomena in intellectual history is the avoidance of the concrete.” He means that in ignoring what is the “closest and most concrete” of realities, we are endangering the future of humanity. When generals and politicians refer to the deaths of innocent civilians in wartime as “collateral damage,” they avoid concrete images of mangled bodies, obscuring the truth with abstraction. –John Fredrick Nims and David Mason

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. –Alfred North Whitehead

The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment. –Ezra Pound

Here is one example of moving down a scale of abstraction:

Clothing

Men’s clothing

Formal men’s clothing

Suits

Suits that I’ve seen

Suits that I’ve worn

The suits I’ve worn that my father paid for

The suit that my father gave me that he bought when he was my age

The suit my father gave me that he wore to church and that I wore to clubs

The pale blue suit, almost white, that he gave me

The pale blue suit with one low button on the long tight jacket, fat linebacker shoulders, and thick cuffs on baggy trousers

The suit lined with smooth silk but mostly made of cheap, tough as burlap, cotton

The suit that smelled a little like worry, like smoke, like apple pollen

The suit she liked so much that she danced with me

The suit I wore while we kissed behind the building

The suit with Isaiah 74:3 handwritten in sharp letters on a card in the breast pocket

Write a similar example of your own.