Week six: All she wrote

Last night we held the last of the six workshops. Well, not the last forever workshop, as the group wants to keep meeting semi-regularly, so that they don't stop writing. This pleases me. It tells me I've done my job.

It's like shelter cats: you can't save all of them. But if you can do something for one of them, or two or three-- and you do it-- then you've given something back. If I can give something back, then I have a reason to keep doing what I do-- even if I'm never as successful in my own work as I might hope to become. For now, I've passed on a little of what I know, and helped someone else to feel more confident in their own ability. I'm content with that.

What tells

It's easy for a writer to get hung up on that old dictum to show, not tell; some writers will end up summarizing, or rushing through, much detail which would enrich a story for fear of telling too much. The trick is not so much to avoid lingering upon certain details or moments, but to make the details count; to be specific. You can pack a lot of information into a story that way, and the story will be richer for it.

Exercise: "Implication," Le Guin 132-133. There are two parts to this exercise: first, in a paragraph or two, describe a character you've been working with by describing in detail any place that character inhabits, or visits regularly: we should infer from the details you provide what sort of person that character is.

Next, foreshadow some event, or give us a glimpse of the nature of some past event, by describing the place where it will happen, or did happen. Focus on specific details, almost as though you were a camera. Do not describe the event itself: we should get a sense of it only from what the place feels like through your description.

How do I know when I'm done?

To answer this question we could spend a lot of time thinking about things like plot structure and conflict-- i.e., what is the main problem or obstacle, do events surrounding the problem come to a climax, and how are things resolved? This way of looking at a story is often accompanied by a little diagram:

That's one way of looking at it. But sometimes a story is more complex than a series of actions or events.

Step back for a moment and think about the story you've been working on over the last few weeks. Can you summarize, in a sentence or two, what the story is about?

It's all right if you can't, exactly. Sometimes a story's central focus isn't something immediately identifiable, and only becomes apparent as you write-- or when someone else points it out. But it's always there; the story is about something. So, too, does each story move along a narrative path: something happens, something changes. If you like the diagram, you could say that exposition is the underlying reason or reasons for the rising action; those reasons spark the action, which in turn causes the climax. The climax is the thing that happens, or the change.

Personally I find it easier to think in terms of focus and change. A story doesn't have to follow a rigid pattern like in the diagram above. It does, however, need a focus, and something needs to happen.

Part of your job, as you write, is to become aware of both the focus and the change, and to aim all the elements of your story at them. This may mean adding details, or removing them, as you write and rewrite. Which you do depends on how relevant each detail is to what the story's about, and where it's going. (Le Guin calls this process crowding and leaping.)

A story is told when you can say no more about it: whatever was meant to change has changed, and narrative path ends up in a different place than it began. A story is finished when you're satisfied with the way individual story elements bring the reader to that place. Figuring out whether or not the story's actually there can take a while. You may need feedback. It will rarely happen in a single draft.

Exercise: "A Terrible Thing To Do," Le Guin p. 147.

First, finish your first draft. Don't do this before.

When you come to the end of your first story draft, open up a new document and paste the story into it. Check the word count. Now reduce the word count by half. Do whatever you must to reach it.

You may find yourself having to cut out things you're in love with to reach the new word count, which is why we open up a new document to do it. It makes the process a bit less painful: you can always go back to the original. The point is to step back and really look at what you have on the page. Be honest with yourself: does that scene, that paragraph, that section of dialogue, that sentence, that word, really need to be there to move the story along its narrative path, or to maintain its focus?

Once you've done that, look a second time. What's missing, now, which really ought to be there? Is there really no more you can say about the story which would help it maintain its focus?

Your ongoing assignment:

  • Pick up a short story collection by an author you've never heard of. Read it. Report back with your impressions.
  • Push ahead with your short story. When you get stuck, try re-visiting some of the exercises in Le Guin. Take a scene you've written already and turn it on its head. Invent a new character. Throw two of your characters into a new situation and run with it. See where it takes you. Be open always to new possibilities.


Week five: In which Time fails to stretch, and monkeys wear Rolexes

I find myself down to three workshoppers, with one session to go. I'd hoped the others might come back. I don't think they will. So that's the paragraphing exercise right out. Never doing that again.

It kills me to lose people. As a teacher, you love working with those students of ample ability who cheerfully stick it out long enough to fly, because then you get to watch them fly; you hope those people discover something new in the process, and feel that you've challenged their intelligence and ability in a worthy fashion. But the people you really want to keep are those who come to you feeling uncertain about their skill, who feel like they're struggling, or even feel unconvinced, on some level, that writing is something worth doing. Not all of those students fly-- but when they do, however briefly, it's something to see.

Writers don't do enough for each other. We can be very selfish, and too quick to dismiss those would-be writers who show little immediate promise. More than anything, when I teach, I want students-- whether they aspire to write seriously or not-- go away feeling they've done something they didn't know they had in them to do. That's everything. I don't care how good they are; I don't care whether they go on to be great and productive authors. I don't care whether or not they ever come to love language or literature as much as I do. I just want them to find out how capable they really are-- to see that the task is not beyond them, and that it's not necessary to be a certain, special kind of person to appreciate art, or to make art.

Last night we talked about point of view, and spent far too long discussing the Flannery O'Connor story from last week-- then we ran out of time. The story is fascinating for the way in which it defies firm answers. Read it if you haven't.

Point of view, and the viewpoint character

The point of view you choose will-- like narrative voice-- often be a matter of what feels right at the time, but there are advantages to testing out other points of view. The first and limited third persons occur most commonly in modern fiction, and both can be limited in that they trap you-- and your reader-- in the mind of a single viewpoint character. That closeness can be a bonus, however, in terms of narrative intimacy. Likewise, while limited third person can allow shifts to other characters' perspectives, the shifts themselves can be tricky to navigate; an omniscient or an involved narrator can allow such shifts to happen a little more easily.

Ultimately, the point of view you choose depends not just upon what feels right, but which characters' perspectives are important to the story. Presenting your character from a different point of view can shed a different sort of light on that character; experimenting with different points of view can sometimes yield surprising results.

Exercise: Take a passage from the scene you wrote, and rewrite it using a different point of view-- choose one from those suggested in chapter seven of Le Guin (p. 91-3). How does the result differ from the previous version-- how does the story change? Did you learn anything about your character by looking at him or her through a different lens?

None of that is to say that it isn't possible to make shifts from one character's perspective to the next-- only that it needs to be done with a good deal of forethought. Ask yourself: whose perspective best sheds light on the action taking place? Does Character A see things the same way as Character B? Might the contrast in their perspectives be interesting?

Exercise: "Changing Voices," Le Guin p. 109-110. Try some quick shifts in limited third: narrate a short scene involving several people, in which something happens; move from one viewpoint character to another as necessary, or as is interesting.


Dialogue isn't just characters chatting: it's part of what drives a scene. What characters say can tell you much about who they are. More than that, the things they say can change the course of events in a story. It's important to make every word of dialogue count.

Exercise: "Telling it Slant," Le Guin p. 119-120. Write a page or two of pure dialogue-- a conversation between two characters. Something should be happening to them; their conversation should imply what's happening. Note that in order for the dialogue to seem like real conversation, you will need to prevent your characters form simply describing their actions to one another; find ways to indicate what's happening without literally describing the action.

Assignment for next time:

Read Grace Paley's "In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All", and Le Guin Chapters 9&10.

"Being the Stranger", Le Guin p. 122-23. Write a short narrative using a viewpoint character whom you feel is alien to you in some way-- it can be someone whom you dislike or disagree with-- but it's not necessary for the character to be unlikeable; it can just as easily be someone whose experience is simply different from your own. The scene should involve at least two characters, and something that happens between them, or to them.


Head music: Big Strides - She Drinks Whiskey
via Last.fm


Week four: Like a song by Howard Jones

One of my workshoppers emailed me over the weekend with a panicked question about the "Chastity" assignment: I'm stuck, she told me. Can I use clauses and phrases that function as adverbs or adjectives?

...and as I recall, the same question came up when I did the exercise myself. I think technically it is cheating, if all we're doing is following the rules set by Le Guin. However, as I said to my workshopper: does what you've done instead work? If it does, don't worry about it. There is good reason for the exercise to make the demands it makes, but Ursula Le Guin is not going to show up on your doorstep and bop you on the head with a mallet for not following her directions to the letter.

The point of the exercise is not to avoid modifying nouns and verbs entirely, but to find ways around the vaguenesses which result from the overuse of adjectives and adverbs. It is always better to name a thing than to say what it was like: concrete, specific details are what you're after, here. Not an absence of description. For example, I could say:
Nora ran quickly down the steep hill,
because it says what I mean. But the difference between saying what I mean and narration is in the detail I give my reader. It's better if I say:
Nora ran full tilt down the hill, barely in control of her feet, nearly flying as gravity pulled her inexorably toward the base of slope,
because there's a much clearer sense of the speed and danger involved in Nora's run. My reader isn't looking at a two-dimensional picture of Nora running: my reader is inside the scene, feeling what Nora feels as she runs.

For further reference, pick up a Harry Potter book and look closely at any page: J.K. Rowling never met an adverb she didn't like. This is what you want to avoid.

My workshopper asked another good question: Do you ever feel tired of a story? Is that a sign to scrap it?

My answer to the first question is Yes: oh, dear god, yes. It's happening right now, has been happening ever since the second day of NaNoWriMo. However, that brings me to the second question, which I would answer with an emphatic No. Boredom is rarely a sign that one ought to abandon a story.

Boredom could be a sign of several things: that you need to step away for a day or two (but absolutely no longer than a week); that you've been working with the same few paragraphs, or on the same scene, for too long; that you're locked into a certain paragraph order, sentence order, or order of events and need to find some way to break out of it. But more often, boredom can be a sign that the story has become more like work and less like fun-- and that you're looking for excuses to stop working. Do not allow yourself to quit because you're bored. I speak from some experience when I tell you that listening to your boredom will keep you from finishing things: and the goal is to finish things. You don't publish what you don't finish, and you won't finish if you allow yourself to follow your boredom.

Trust me on this.

Keep going: even if you get fidgety, even if your eyelids droop. Keep going. Things can only get better. You know it's true, because Howard Jones sang it.

This week we talked about the narrative voice, and a little about character development.

The narrative voice

For our purposes, voice does not mean the written "authenticity" of a piece, or a writer's "style." Rather, it means the manner in which a story is told: the "voice" of the narrator. Normally, when we start writing a story we don't give a lot of conscious thought to how it's told, or to who's telling it; we use whatever perspective feels right, which is fine. But the manner of telling we choose is part of what shapes a story as a whole. My choice of perspective for telling a story-- a first person I, or a third person he, she, or they, in the past or present tense-- will alter its feeling, perhaps even its outcome. When my narrator's reasons for relating a story change, the whole story changes.

Verb tense and point of view have a lot to do with the viewpoint character-- that is, whose eyes we see through, whose story we follow, and how much we are permitted to see and hear in relation to that character. For this reason it's a good idea to ask yourself, as you write, just who is telling the story, and why. Your narrator may turn out to be your viewpoint character, or it might not. The point is not to assure that your narrator is assigned a firm identity, or a direct role in the story; think of it rather as a guide. How much the narrator sees, knows, and understands will affect the way a reader understands the story.

Exercise: "The Old Woman," Le Guin p. 76-77. Write a short scene, using very little dialogue, in which an old woman is doing something in the narrative "present" while at the same time reflecting upon something that happened to her a long time ago. Choose a person (first or third) and a tense (past or present) from which to write the scene and move back and forth between the two times. Make at least two of these time-shifts in the scene.

Next, rewrite the scene from the other person, and tense. How does your scene change? Do you learn anything new about the character, or your narrator, from the change?


Characters are people. Let me say that again: Characters are people.

Even if your characters are fantastic in some way-- say you're writing about angels, or centaurs, or talking animals-- as far as your story is concerned, they're still sentient beings. They have inner lives. If a character's inner life isn't as real to you as the physical features you imagine for him, he won't be real to your readers. Stories are as much about as what goes on inside people as the external actions they take.

Fortunately for you, this means that half the job is done already: you know what being a person is like, and what having an inner life is like, because you are a person who does all the thinking, feeling, seeing, and experiencing that people do. All that material is, in one way or another, in your memory, and in your experience.

The job of characterization is not just to ask who, but why, and what, and how: Who is my character that she would do such a thing, or say such a thing? What kind of person does that make her? Why would such a person make that kind of decision, or take that kind of action? What might drive her to act or choose differently?

These are difficult questions, and it's not always possible to answer them fully. You still need to ask them of your characters.

Assignment: The Character Sketch, and the Screen Test

This week's assignment is twofold: you're going to introduce us to a viewpoint character you've been working with in your story, or in one of the previous exercises.

First, write a short character sketch, giving some information about that character's background. This can be a straightforward character description-- or, if you prefer, a narrative passage. Make it as detailed as possible.

Here are some questions to think about as you write: vital statistics are important, of course, but also consider some or all of the following-- even if they don't necessarily have anything to do with your story. You might even try "interviewing" your character on paper-- write the answers to each question down as your character might give them.
  • What does your character want? How far would they go to get what they want?
  • What makes your character angry? Or happy? What makes him or her cry? Can he or she cry?
  • What is your character's most vivid memory?
  • What sorts of colors does your character wear? What attracts them to those colors?
  • Who does your character hate? Who does your character love? Under what circumstances did that love or hate take root?
  • What does your character do-- does he or she work, hang around in the unemployment line, something else?
  • How does he or she eat? Sleep? Drive? Talk on the phone? Leave voice messages? Behave at parties?
  • What does your character care most about?
  • What was he or she doing up to the point that the events of your story unfold?
  • How easily startled is your character? How easily thrown off balance by unexpected turns of events? How does he or she react under stress?
  • What sorts of bad habits does your character have-- nail biting? Paint peeling? Nose picking?
...and so forth. You may draw some of these details from yourself, or some from people you know, or have met. The point is to gather as much detail as you can, to give yourself a picture of a whole person-- then bear it in mind as you thrust your character into the scene you'll write next:

Place that character in a scene: give the character a "screen test." Choose one of the POV options in exercise 7 of Le Guin (p.91-3), and then give your character something to do, and something to observe while he does it. It can be a simple, mundane action, or something complex and dramatic-- that's up to you. Don't be afraid to let that character wander around a bit, either physically, or in and out of different trains of thought. See what he does, or what you can plausibly make him do given the POV you've chosen. Find out who he is.

You may find yourself unable to answer all of the questions from the first part of the assignment until you write the scene; likewise, you may discover new traits as you write, or find better answers than the ones you initially came up with. Both are okay. Just give yourself as much detail as you think you need to move forward-- then allow the character some room to do things on his or her own.

Reading assignment for next time: Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and Le Guin Chapters 7&8.


Head music: Joe Jackson - Breaking Us in Two
via FoxyTunes


Week three: the terrible sound of silence

Here's the big secret about teaching writing: you don't have to be a monumentally successful writer to do it. You don't have to have a significant amount of publication experience behind you; you don't have to have been writing for twenty years. Both certainly help, of course, as does having a writing degree, if only because all three look good on a CV. But teaching is fundamentally about being able to explain stuff. If you know your subject, and you can explain that subject in a way that gets other people on the road to to knowing it just as well, you can teach.

When you enter a graduate writing program on a teaching assistantship, you begin teaching workshops without a whole lot of guidance: sometimes they'll walk you through the material first, and give you helpful tips about lecturing and fielding discussions, but it's essentially a baptism by fire. You're on your own. It's up to you to figure out what it is you know, and how to transfer that knowledge to your students. A writer who teaches is forced to figure out very quickly what it is that she believes about what she does-- why it works the way it does, how it can work better, why it's worth trying to make it better.

That's is the part I'm good at. I know how to think about writing. What I haven't learned to do so well is lead a group. Up to now I liked to think that I knew how to get people to write, that I was good at that, too. Now I'm not so sure.

Perhaps it was foolish to suggest to my current workshoppers that we operate on the honor system as far as weekly assignments go. The workshop is voluntary; I thought it might be better, as We are Not in School, to send my writers away with an assignment each week, but not insist that they hand in typewritten copies of their work. Please do the assignments, I said, and then bring in your results to share with the group if you want to. That way, those workshoppers wanting feedback could have it, but none of them would be under any obligation to expose themselves to critique earlier than they felt comfortable.

This was a mistake, and I worry that in making it, I've let my workshoppers down to a very serious degree. An enforced deadline is like a buoy at sea: when you see it, you'll swim for it. My workshoppers, on the other hand, have been left treading water. Because the short-term requirements aren't enforced the way they might be in a college class, my writers aren't writing much outside sessions. This is a problem: because they're not writing or practicing the techniques we cover in sessions on their own, they're not seeing much point in either the assignments or the session activities. You can't have one without the other in a workshop setting: you do the in-class stuff, and then you have to go away and practice. Then you come back and talk about how practice went, and you get feedback on your practice. You go away with a sense of having learned something; you apply what you learned the next time you practice. And so on. That's how it works.

Or how it ought to work, at least. As of next week, we're going to start turning things in. If over the next three weeks my workshoppers start writing, I'll know I've done something right.

This week we backed off with the sentence-level torment, and talked about details.

Points of focus

When setting a scene, it's important to remember that the quantity of detail you include isn't enough on its own to make the story powerful. Much of a story's power rests in the selection of the right details-- details that will give the reader just enough information to imagine clearly what you're describing, then make his or her own imaginative leap into a given setting, with those characters, in whatever situation they find themselves. The same holds true for the decisions you make about which events to dramatize in the course of a narrative. Details and events must not simply be present in a piece of fiction: they must seem inevitable.

But how to choose?
  • Focus on a point of action, or decision, on the part of a character. Choose a moment in which something happens.
  • Pick up in the middle of things. Pick up dialogue in the midst of a conversation; begin at a point at which several events have already taken place.
  • Focus in on something small, which is relevant to the action. A description of an object, a sound, or some other part of the setting.
Exercise: Sensory Detail

Think about the first house you can remember living in: walk through it in your mind, even sketch a quick floor plan of the house if that helps. Set a scene in the room you remember most vividly, involving a character-- any character, someone you know or someone you invent, so long as it's not you yourself-- doing something in the room, and what they see as they go about whatever action you make them do. Any action is fine: they can be waiting for someone else to arrive, they can be dusting, they can be snooping through drawers. Whatever action you choose, include as much sensory detail as possible. Are there smells? Textures? Tastes? What's the light like? What does it feel like for that character, in that room?

Making mind-movies

To determine which events and details to focus on, it can be helpful to think of your story cinematically-- each scene, each moment, as though you were watching it on a screen. If your story was a movie, what would the camera focus on, and in what order? What would appear in close-up, at what point in the scene? What sorts of sound-effects might there be, or background sounds? How would it be lit? What kind of music would you set the scene against, if it were possible to accompany it with a soundtrack?

Exercise: Sequencing Details

Imagine some household "disaster": something breaking, something leaking, a strange noise, some sort of mess. Picture it in your mind: what happens first, and then what, and then what? Describe the event in as much specific detail as you can, exactly as it occurs. (It might be interesting to come back to what you've written in a week or so, and try writing it from different perspectives: try writing it from a first-person or third-person perspective, and see if the scene turns out differently.)

  • Read Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon,"* and Le Guin Chapters 5&6.
  • Le Guin exercise 5, p. 62-63, "Chastity": Write a page or so of narrative description which does not use adjectives or adverbs, and does not include dialogue. You may wish to use this exercise to write the next page of the story that you're working on.

*I haven't been able to find an online version of this story, but it appears in Calvino's short story collection Cosmicomics, published in 1965. The version I have appears in Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy's Creating Fiction: A Writer's Companion, published by Harcourt Brace.


Week two: Here come the drums

This week, I learned that not everyone loves fiddling with sentences, and with the flow of a paragraph, as much as I do. You may find that you hate what follows; my workshoppers certainly did. Do it anyway. The torment doesn't last long, and the results can be interesting.

My workshoppers wrote stellar stuff last night. So will you. Hop to it.

Ebb and flow - the Narrative Sentence

Making stuff up, telling tales, is only part of a fiction writer's job. Fiction writers ask questions about the world around them: What if? and How? and Why? They point a flashlight beam at things readers might not ordinarily look at, or fear to see. They look hard at the things they see, and say what it is they've seen. They make things up in order to tell the truth.

Now suppose that I want to tell you about a room in my house-- say the den in which I do most of my work. I could describe it very simply: there's a chair for sitting and reading, a desk, a computer, wall-to-wall carpet. That doesn't tell you much, though, about what sort of room my den is. To explain that, I need to give much more specific detail. I could tell you, for example, that the chair is one of those light, lounge-type chairs from Ikea, with a footstool, and just my size; I could say that the desk is long, with a fold-up top and lots of nooks inside for keeping a random accumulation of pens and other objects-- a little plushie cat, a handful of horse chestnuts I found, fabric swatches for the window blinds I can't get round to ordering.

These details give some sense that my office is a comfortable, well-lived in sort of place, perhaps a bit cluttered. It even suggests a little about who I might be: quiet, sedentary, rather distractable. Simply adding detail, however, doesn't really get at what it's feels like to be in my office, or, more importantly, what it feels like to be me in my office. To do that, I need to think about not just what I describe-- though the choosing of details is an important part of the task. I also need to think about how I go about describing what I see.

Ursula Le Guin says: The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence (Le Guin 39). It's that narrative flow and rhythm-- one line into the next, one idea into the next, one detail into another-- which guides a reader through a story. To tell a reader what it's like to be me sitting in my den, I need to selectively arrange the details and moments I choose so that one flows effortlessly into the next. What I do with each sentence might create a cinematic sort of movement in the reader's mind, like following a series of cuts. Or it might feel more like being inside a character's mind, following his train of thought. It might be an entirely sensory feeling-- a permeating hint of sound, smell, image-- that provides a quiet backdrop to the story (much of the language in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for example, follows a rhythm rather like waves on a beach, to mirror the setting). With the language rhythms I choose, I create movement, or stillness: an atmosphere, a tone to draw the reader in to the story.

Think of it like this: You place the reader in the center of a white square, then draw a painted canvas about the boundary of the square to make walls, and a three dimensional space for the reader to stand in. She's not simply looking at a picture of a room-- she's in the room.

Take another look at Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour". What sort of feeling does the language she uses evoke for you-- is it melancholy, does it make you want to laugh, or wince, or grin ruefully? (There's no real right answer to that question, by the way.) Note also that there's very little dialogue; likewise, there are very few concrete physical descriptions regarding Mrs. Mallard's room (we know there's a chair, a door, a window, things outside the window). What is it, then, that tells you what it's like inside the room, or how the room seems to Mrs. Mallard? What does Chopin do instead to set the scene? What do we learn about Mrs. Mallard, and the world she lives in, as a result of how she sets the scene?

This next series of exercises explores how changing the rhythms of sentences and sentence lengths changes the atmosphere of a scene. It's a good idea to try to use the same paragraph in all three parts; that way, it's easier to see the difference.

Exercise: Narrative Rhythm

Part 1: "I Am García Márquez," Le Guin p. 34.

Even if you've done this one before, do it again: write a paragraph or so of narrative without any punctuation, line breaks, or paragraph breaks whatsoever. Read it aloud, to yourself or in a group. What feeling do you get from the scene? What might it suggest about the narrator, the characters, the setting?

Part 2: "Short and Long," Le Guin p, 47-48.

Now take your unpunctuated paragraph and rewrite it, punctuating it so that the finished result is made up entirely of short, simple sentences-- say seven words or less. Be warned: it is possible to do this exercise by simply sticking in punctuation where it ought to go, but you won't get much out of it doing things that way. Revise the paragraph: find better ways of stringing ideas and lines together. The flow of a paragraph containing short, choppy sentences is much different than the flow of an unpunctuated one; it may require you to rearrange things a bit in order to arrive at something you like. Now how does the passage feel? What's the difference? Do short, choppy sentences suit your scene better? Worse?

Once you've done that, rewrite (rewrite, don't just re-punctuate) the passage a third time, punctuating it so that it's one long sentence: use colons, dashes, parentheses, semicolons-- anything to link the ideas together. What's the effect of changing the language rhythm this way on your scene? What seems to fit what you've written best?

In a week or so you might go back to your paragraph, and revise it in any way that seems fit. Play with rhythms and sentence lengths; see what you like the sound of, and the feel of.

Punctuating long sentences: a few hints
  • Dashes, semicolons, colons, and parentheses keep clauses distinct from other clauses.
  • Colons have two purposes: they set off a main idea from something which further elaborates on that idea, or they signal the beginning of a list. For example, here are some numbers: one, two, three, and seven hundred ninety-seven.
  • A semicolon is end punctuation; it goes where a period would go. The clauses on either side of a semicolon should be directly related to each other in some way, usually in that one elaborates upon the other. The structure of a clause on one side of a semicolon also should (ideally) mirror the structure of the one on the other side.
  • A semicolon can also separate elements of a list the way commas do, if each list element is long, or already contains commas. For example: here is the first item in my list, and you'll notice it's very long; a second item follows, and it too includes a comma; here's a third.
  • Dashes and parentheses are similar, and can contain a sentence fragment, a list or even a single word. Dashes signal something like a tonal interruption. Parentheses, meanwhile, signal something more like an aside to the reader, or a whisper.

Say it once, say it twice, play it again: Repetition

Repetition in fiction writing-- or in nonfiction, or poetry-- isn't the same thing as redundancy. Redundancy usually means the unnecessary overuse of a word, or the restating of an idea the text already makes evident. Rather, repetition is a rhythmic device: it can give emphasis to an image, create a mood, or lend a certain sound to a passage. Used wisely, it can be an effective way to establish the tone of a story, or reinforce its thematic elements.

Here are a couple of brief examples. The first is simply redundant, involving the ineffective and completely unnecessary repetition of a word:

A Redundant Bus Ride

Adria took a seat on the bus, faced the front. Her face reflected in the window beside her as she watched the streetlights go by. It was late. She couldn't face the long walk home from the bus stop, or the look on her mother's face when at last she arrived. What would her mother say, when she arrived?

The second passage works a little better; its repetitions reinforce the main character's plight, and hint at how she must feel.

Repetiton on a Beach

She'd waited three days without a sign of any other living thing-- not a boat, not a person, not even an animal of any kind. For three days she wandered up and down the beach, up and down, back and forth along the long, grey line of sand stretching from one end of the narrow island to the other. It had not stopped raining in all that time. She shivered, hunched her shoulders, kept walking. Three days. And three days. And three more days. Could she wait that long?
Now you try it.

Exercise: Narrative Repetition

Parts 1 & 2: "Again and Again and Again," Le Guin p. 56-7.

Write a paragraph to a page of narrative which repeats one of the following:
  • a noun, verb, or adjective
  • the structure or rhythm of a particular sentence, or part of a sentence
This exercise involves turning your mind's ear up to eleven. It's about the way sentences sound next to each other, and the effect of repeating sounds. It's also an exercise in finding the important bits, or the interesting bits, of a paragraph which are worth re-emphasis. Don't simply use the same word over and over again-- find a reason to repeat. Reinforce an idea, create a rhythm; whatever you repeat will affect the mood of the passage.

Bonus points for using both sorts of repetition at once.

The third part of this exercise calls for the use of structural repetition: where something echoes something said or done in another part of the story. This last part may take you some time; feel free to use it in your work on the assignment for next week.


  • Read Gabriel García Márquez "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," and Le Guin Chapters 3&4.
  • Le Guin exercise p. 56-57, "Again and Again and Again": Write a short narrative passage, up to 1000 words, which makes use of some of the repetitive elements Le Guin discusses in chapter 4. This assignment does not need to follow directly on the heels of the previous one, unless that seems appropriate to you; feel free, however, to use the same characters and narrative situation you used before, or even to expand what you've written already. Jump in anywhere, or write something completely new.

Nota Bene: The links to the exercises go back to the notes I made on each chapter of the book a while ago; there you'll find the instructions for each, and what I came up with when I did them myself. That stuff-- which has a lot to do with my own writing and teaching prep, and not much to do with then workshop proper-- may or may not prove useful to you. Often it's much better to do things on your own first, rather than checking ahead of time to see how someone else did them. As I've said, there's no real right or wrong here; the point is to use these exercises in ways which are helpful to you.


Week one: I put on my robe and teacher hat

So the first workshop session was last night. This is the second creative writing workshop I've taught for the library, and the first long workshop-- six weeks-- I've done in a while. I think it went well, in spite of occasional stammering and thought-train derailment on my part. Writing is easy. Leading a discussion is something else altogether. I suspect I will always find the latter more difficult. But never mind me-- let's get to the good stuff. I've had a couple of requests to post the lesson plans as I go, in case anyone wants to follow along, so I'll do that. If you'd like to tag along, welcome aboard!

The text that follows is from a handout I put together for the first night, with a few additions here and there. Most of my workshoppers, while very able writers, are new to fiction writing and feeling fairly tentative about it. The workshop material I post on here will, as such, largely be geared toward the beginning writer; depending on where you, dear reader, feel you are as a writer, some of it may seem rather elementary. Equally, since we're using Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft in the workshop,regular readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of the exercises already. But don't let any of that put you off. If nothing else, it never hurts to be reminded of what you already know, to realise that you know it, and to reinforce it.

The nice thing about the Le Guin text, I've found, is that it has a long shelf life and holds up well to repeat visits. Feel free to play around with the exercises in any way that suits you. There aren't really any hard and fast rules here; though I'd suggest you'll get better mileage if you don't skip anything. Do the exercises; do them again. Pull out your toolbox and really look at your tools: language, punctuation, details, structure, tone, and so on. Learn, or remind yourself, what they're for. Read the short stories and look closely at the decisions each author makes-- decisions about how to use those tools in the toolbox. Don't just appreciate and admire: really look. Ask yourself questions. Why did the author do that? How might the story, or the scene, or the character, change if he did something else? This is where a writer's confidence begins: seeing through a story's "magic" to its nuts, bolts and gears, and knowing what each part is for.

We have a loose goal of having one short story by the end of the six weeks-- it can be a first draft, but the idea is to start something, and follow it through. If any of you out there following along would like to share what you've been writing-- exercises or otherwise-- please feel free to do so. Slap it in the comments section or even email me with it, if you like. If you do email please bear in mind that it may take me some time to get back to you; my regular workshoppers have priority, because they've paid a registration fee to be there. But I'll do my best.

Or just work along quietly. That's okay, too. Whatever works for you.

What Stories are For, and Where They Come From

If you want to write, you have to allow yourself to write stuff down. You have to tell the page what's in your head.

When we ask ourselves what a good story should do, we often think in general terms: stories "make us think," "comment on the human condition," "spark our imaginations/give us wings/plant seeds in the soil of our dreams," etc. But good stories actually do all of those things, to one extent or another, at once. In order to understand what makes a story a "good" one, we need to ask ourselves not only why we tell stories, but what we enjoy most about our favorite stories-- in other words, what aspects make them work for us as well as they do.

Beginning writers-- and experienced writers-- sometimes pick up this idea that, once we get serious about writing, we have to approach stories the way we imagine a great painter might approach a canvas; we imagine that they come striding in with some vision, or concept, and execute it in a few grand strokes. (Of course, it's really not like that at all, as any painter could tell you.) While concept and vision may be where art begins, they aren't where stories begin.

Think about the stories you loved as a kid-- the ones that made you want to run home and act them out, or to draw a picture, or to head off to the library for more books. It's easy to forget, sometimes, what it is we love about stories, and telling them-- and to forget what it is that made us want to write them down in the first place.

A good story can be about anything-- even something we presume everyone's heard about before. A story's worth has less to do with the material itself than what you do with it. Often, the best stories are the ones that come out of something very simple, small, and commonplace-- a moment, an image, a thought, even just a word or two.

Look at Sandra Cisneros's "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn" (you may need to zoom in a bit to read it) and Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl". Neither follows what you might call a traditional story structure. Ask yourself: how do we know, then, that they're stories? What's happening in each one-- what are they about, who are they about? What does each writer's use of language tell you about what's happening, and who the characters are? What else strikes you about the writing, the narration?

: Following a Line

Take two nouns, and two verbs, at random from a nearby book. Write down all four words, consider them for a bit, and then pair them off in different combinations-- write them down, or connect them by drawing a line between them.

Once you've done that, try writing a sentence, or a couple of sentences, using your favorite combinations; try to use all four words. Then rewrite what you've written: elevate the language, be poetic, be gorgeous, be rhythmic.

Part 2: "Being Gorgeous," Le Guin p. 26. (Follow the link and scroll about halfway down the page for the exercise.)

Begin with the line you just wrote. Write a short narrative, in a paragraph or two, or even a page, following on from that train of thought-- whatever comes into your head. Focus on how the language sounds as you write: it can be a rambling description, or part of a character's internal monologue, or something else. Do try to make it a fiction, but don't worry about whether it makes too much sense at this point. Just follow one line into the next, and see where it takes you.

Start Small, Make it New

The way we write stories, the things we choose to write stories about, have much to do with our individual perspective-- in his essay "On Writing," Raymond Carver calls this a unique and exact way of looking. By this he means not so much "originality" as "individuality." No two writers, or readers for that matter, see the world in exactly the same way. As we read a story, that individual perspective is the thing which can startle us, delight us, or disturb us; when we find precise ways of expressing that perspective, whatever it is, we bring it to life.

Look at "The One Sitting There" by Joanna H. Wos. Notice that very little action takes place; the story line itself is very simple. But what does happen? What do we know about the narrator? There's obviously much more to the story, and the narrator's past: why do you think the author chooses to tell so little of that background? How might this story be different if she did?

Exercise: The Meaning in the Moment

Think about this morning's routine, from the time you got up until you left the house. Choose a moment during that period of time-- some activity or event, be it brushing your teeth, or making coffee, or getting dressed-- and dramatize it in a way that hints at a problem, or something about to happen. It doesn't have to be an enormous, earth-shattering event. Start simply, and walk yourself through the scene. Find the meaning in the moment.

Which exercise did you find more challenging? What seems to work for you?

  • Read Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" and Le Guin Chapters 1&2. Do the exercises at the end of chapter two. Think about the way Chopin narrates the story, the language and details she chooses, the perspective she chooses. How does it compare with the others we've looked at? Do you prefer one style of narration over the others? Why?
  • Use one of the exercises we just did, or one of Le Guin's exercises from the second chapter, to begin a new story. Shoot for 300 words or so, or longer if you wish; just get started on something.


Now playing: Tom Lehrer - Lobachevsky
via FoxyTunes


Favourite chapter

My favourite chapter of The Graveyard Book.* Watch it if you haven't yet.

I've been wanting to do a bloggy review of The Graveyard Book for about a week now, but the only things I can think to say are oh, and also wow, and cor, and perfect. It is: it's perfect. Just astonishing. And the Danse Macabre happens right in the middle of the book! Of course it does! Perfect!

But it's something other than wowsome perfection: it's that same shiver I feel when I read the "Time Passes" section of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, or the suicide in "The Roses Were Stones" portion of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan,** or the moment Kurt Vonnegut steps into Breakfast of Champions to speak with Kilgore Trout-- or even that point in Gene Wolfe's Shadow and Claw at which the reader witnesses, amidst feudal chaos and decay, a robot (a real robot, by golly!) become fully himself. In those ecstatic moments of a novel, themes and language and character meet for a crescendo and the story takes hold. You understand, as a reader, that you never ever want to leave it. You shiver. You lose a breath. You hear the music in the author's head.

That Gaiman marks the crescendo with music and a dance is...well, perfect. And why say more than that? Why should I be oversimple to talk about delight?

The heck with exercises. I can't go and teach a writing course now, when someone's gone and written that. Sit 'em down in front of the video tour and tell them to pay attention, that's what I'll do. Yeah: six weeks, couple of chapters a night. Sorted.

(Oh, of course I won't really, silly beans.)


*I do read other authors too. Honestly.

**Peake, Mervyn. Titus Groan, Book One of The Gormenghast Trilogy. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1992. p. 324.

An excerpt of the suicide scene. Listen:
Her head, turning, was dimensionless. A thong about her neck supported the proud carvings of her lovers. They hung across her breasts. At the edge of age, there was a perilous beauty in her face as of the crag's edge that she stood upon. The last of footholds; such a little space. The colour fading on the seven-foot strip. It lay behind her like a carpet of dark roses. The roses were stones. There was one fern growing. It was beside her feet. How tall?...A thousand feet? Then she must have her head among far stars. How far all was! Too far for Flay to see her head turned-- a speck of life against that falling sun.

Upon his knees he knew that he was witness.

I mean! Phew. Cor. Blimey.


Further than the moon

Ten million trillion neutrinos will speed harmlessly through your brain and body in the time it takes to read this sentence. By the time you have read this sentence, they will be farther away than the moon.

-- Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way*

One of the books I just finished closes almost precisely on the same line, and with a similar image, as a short story I've been trying to write, on and off, for the last three years. People talk about memes travelling like a game of telephone or Chinese whispers (and here I mean memes in the real sense, not in the sense of passing around links, quizzes, pictures, and the like on the internet). But the coincidence in this case seems so odd to me, and so unlikely, that I can't help but wonder whether ideas don't travel more like neutrinos-- zinging through each mind and then away. If a writer knows the moment for what it is when a thought arrives, he or she might grab it and give it voice; otherwise it travels on, hits someone else, and maybe that person catches it.

Nah. It's a lovely idea, but a bit woo*, really. It's far more likely that I'm not the first person to think of ending a story with that particular line, or with that image. There are only so many words, and so many images, and so many thoughts out there in the first place; repetition or concurrence of certain ideas may come as a surprise, but seems also inevitable. In any case, the discovery has finally convinced me that I need to start writing my story over entirely. It's not the first or only thing to convince me, mind you. Just the final straw, in a manner of speaking; now I genuinely understand what they† mean when they tell you to throw out the first thousand pages.

Start over, on a blank page one, without a draft to consult. The idea was suggested to me by Val somewhere down below, and it's a good one: more than hacking relentlessly away toward the truth, it takes you all the way back to the beginning-- the single creative kernel at the heart of a story. The moment before the narrative Big Bang, let's say. That's a scary prospect.

In the Beginning I had an image in my head of a girl having her bag stolen in a London tube station. Over the last three years I added things, and complicated things, and wrote lots and lots of lovely paragraphs describing how deeply and irrevocably the girl fell into trouble-- but the story ended up nowhere. Each addition to the narrative, no matter how accomplished, felt further and further from what the story ought to have been.

With a blank page in front of me, I think about the moment I first began to write the story-- much longer ago, actually, than the three years I claim. I didn't really know then it was something which might become a story. I just wrote. I was still living in Britain at the time, near Cambridge, and I'd just flubbed and failed my way through a couple of miserable job interviews. I sat on the floor of the tiny spare room we used as a study, up against the radiator, with a notebook in my lap. It may have been early, a weekend morning, say, my husband still asleep. Or it might have been a weekday afternoon, and I was alone in the house. The sun was coming in the window; it was chilly. The radiator clunked and hissed a little, but I curled up against it like an old friend, and wrote for a page or so about a girl who gets lost. She was lost because I was lost. She got lost on purpose: she let the thief steal her bag. That was where the story began.

When I sat down with that scene a few years later and began to rewrite it-- this time out on the back deck of the house I live in now, in the late summer sunshine-- I don't think I remembered how it came out of a sense of being adrift and helpless. I felt comfortable by then; I wasn't lost any more. When I go back and read the story now, it reads as though written by someone in comfort, someone far flung from that original kernel which began it. Frankly the whole thing's a bit glib. Somehow I need to find my way back to that moment on the floor in the spare room, trying to write, feeling that I'd left everything I knew behind, and that everything which could possibly have gone wrong had done. And then begin again.

I'll let you know how I get on.

No exercise for this week-- and I still haven't done the the telling-a-lie one, mainly because it completely fails to interest me (which ought to tell me something about its potential use in a workshop), but I'm always on the lookout, and Jack P.-- whose Scary Halloween Story roundup I participated in last year (wonder if he'll host it again this year?)-- has posted some interesting suggestions for getting started from an old BBC page; I may try some of those.

Goldfish gave me a nice shout-out over there, too, which was awfully kind of her, and I can only return the favor: if you have not yet read Diary of a Goldfish, you need to. She's one of the best writers out there blogging, in my opinion. And she bakes a mean Dalek Cake.


*Ferris, Timothy. Coming of Age in the Milky Way. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. p. 344.

**See number four under the Urban Dictionary definition if you're not British.

† i.e., "The Wizards"


Sleight of mind

Oh, we make it all sound so bloody easy, don't we? Writers, I mean. When we're writing well. We talk about writing as though we'd know. Start from a line, I says to students, when I have them. Start from an image. Start with what happened when you brushed your teeth this morning. Anything. Begin where you begin! I call it spew. Natalie Goldberg says to begin from First Thoughts, which is much the same idea, while Ursula Le Guin says it all begins with language and the way it sounds (an idea I like very much). Neil Gaiman says that ideas come from asking yourself simple questions (I like this idea, too), and Ernest Hemingway once said, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." Okay, Ernest. Stick this one in your truth pipe and smoke it:

Lately the inside of my head feels like a frozen yoghurt shake.

Actually Ernest has me, there. There are myriad possibilities in a line like that-- though when your head's full of frozen yoghurt, it can be difficult to see them sitting there, or figure what you might do with them.

I've been thinking, as I wade through the curdled mind-custard, a lot about where you get stories, where the ones really worth telling come from. There are those sort which seem to come out of nowhere, spilling out of your subconscious when you're not looking for them. Then there's that other sort of story, the one you've been working on, or thinking about, for years, the one you've gone and done research for, the one you care about. That latter type is the one most writers talk about when people ask them why they write, or what they're working on; to be honest, I've never felt that I have many of that type of story in me to write. Consciously, I never know what to write about. Sit me in front of a blank screen, tell me to write the truest thing I know, and nothing happens. Give me something that feels, on the other hand, like an idle problem to solve or a puzzle to play with, and things come alive: there's the wizened aunt in the gauzy flower-print skirt. She's got no stockings on, and probably no undies, either. There's a girl wandering lost down an alley; she'll die when she turns the corner. There's the ship captain in his white patent leather boots, about to kick a stowaway in the gut. Who knows where they come from? The same place that nightmares and half-sleep hallucinations come from, probably-- that part of my mind which felt utterly convinced, at 4:00 on one particularly dark morning, that a bat was climbing up one side of the hall window.

How the products of that idle puzzle-solving move from being the first type of story to the second type-- i.e., from daydream to the one story that matters more than any other you've yet told-- is the tricky bit. I'm not really sure how that happens; whenever I find myself flailing around, trying to find a story I care about, I mainly feel frustrated with anything I do write. I get picky, and grumpy. I often don't finish, having convinced myself the story's not really worth caring about. How to care is a question I will leave to the interweb's armchair psychologists, and How to finish warrants perhaps an entire entry on its own. How to begin is what concerns me for the moment: that mental sleight-of-hand which takes place, allowing one to tell a story at all.

In some desperation, I began all over again, a few hours ago, with the Le Guin book, and reread the first chapter. You might recall the exercise she uses there, which encourages free play with language sounds and rhythms. I wondered whether there might be some way of attaching that exercise to writing story beginnings-- there was that one idea of beginning with a poetic line which I stole, sort of, from a poet I know-- and also to working with setting. I like the idea of an exercise which begins a story the way an opening panning shot does in film-- a description which begins at a sweeping, wide angle, then moves in closer to reveal an object, a character, or a situation. An opening paragraph or two, let's say, which begins from a poetic description. Rather than trying to make something up for this exercise I actually went back to a dim memory of visiting Jerome, Arizona when I was twelve; you might say I began from memory, but tarted it up a bit.

The result is a little rough, and it doesn't go anywhere much; bear in mind, too, that I used the exercise more as a starting point rather than as practice in writing description. Consider this not so much an instructive post as an over-the-shoulder view of me attempting to write through whatever it is that's keeping me from writing very well this week. Feel free to try it along with me, if you like, and let me know how it works (or doesn't) for you.

We walked up Hill Street, right to the top on a clear blue day, past shops and galleries with their fronts painted blue to match the sky and green to match the blue, their windows dark because nothing's open on a Sunday in Jerome; nothing on a Sunday, nothing after five. There was a glossy-glazed earthenware pot in one window, a round pot like a miniature dutch oven, with a knob-handled lid. The pot had turtles painted round its middle, coloured deep blue like the ocean and spread-eagled like they were swimming, round and round and round the pot. I wanted that pot; I wanted to keep pennies in it. But the shop was shut.

My Aunt Sally put a hand on my shoulder and leaned down to whisper in my ear, in one of those whispers everyone nearby can hear. "I'll buy that for you come Tuesday, when we come in to do the shopping." She turned and clopped off up the sidewalk in her thick high heels, her flower-print skirt whipping at her legs in the wind. I followed, and my parents followed; we all went up the hill. I thought and thought and thought about the pot, and couldn't see anything else for glazed clay and shiny round and turtles, turtles, turtles; I would put it on my desk at home for keeping special things, for coins and fuzzy google-eye worms out of plastic eggs from supermarket penny-toy machines, and for the smooth little pebbles, better even than marbles, out of the creek. I couldn't see anything, not the clear blue or the clouds rushing along the early evening sky, or Aunt Sally's chunky front steps, which I tripped on going up not once but twice; when I leaned out through the square porch window cut right through the white brick to look back down the hill and the street, I couldn't see that, either. I leaned out and felt the wind in my hair and thought about a pot. "Come in, come in," Aunt Sally said.

I'll be a heel if I don't at least try to attempt the other exercise I had in mind-- the one about getting inside a character who tells a lie. Which seems, now I think about it, a very good way to play with unreliable narrators. So perhaps I'll do that next. (Anyone else try that one?)


Edit: Now with graphical enhancement! That's the pot-- or, at least, that was the pot I ended up with; either the pot I describe above wasn't available for sale at the time, or the friend in Jerome who sent it thought I wanted the vase instead. It was the very first piece of art pottery I ever owned, so it didn't really matter in the end. I believe it came from Made in Jerome Pottery. I'm not entirely sure about that, though, so don't quote me on it.


The ten-minute found poem

Here's an exercise which I wish I could think of a way to use in a fiction workshop, but I'm not sure it'd really work: did you see Neil Gaiman's post this morning? He's written a found poem-- that is, taken an existing passage of text and turned it into a poem. You can get away with this kind of thing in poetry, because you're doing something new with the passage you find; its meaning changes, the ideas change. It's harder, if not impossible, to achieve the same thing by taking an existing passage of prose and presenting it out of context: at best, you're just quoting.
It's an interesting approach to teaching the ways in which lines can fit together, though, and how one line can follow another. Maybe it could work if the exercise required that you rewrite the passage with the sentences in a completely different order...maybe. I'm still not sure what the point would be, in the context of a fiction workshop.

Anyhoo, the post made me want to write a found poem, too-- and, well, there I already was, and there was some text. So I wrote one. Sorry, Neil.


did I ever really live
in a very tall house
filled with conjurers

and acrobats
in a county down
among the bees

are these real things
or just things I've

all the questions are new
not just questions
but barked cries

all I remember
is the unbearable

and the memory
of saying them
and the memory of me

because I can
because I can
because I can



Regarding night gardens

Just a poem today, for the night garden project. I wrote it with my best friend's daughter in mind. Heaven knows why I'd want to tell a two-and-a-half-year-old girl a thing like this.
Tinkerbell and the Butterfly Bush
(for Audrey)

It isn't true that Tinkerbell
came into our back yard at night,

to buzz around in sunny moon-
light and wait till my teeth fell out,

so she could carve a new tea set.
(Enamel's stronger than ox-bone,

and Tinkerbells pay well.) But I
sat in the hall window seat, fists

over my ears (to keep out bats),
my lost teeth tucked into my palm.

Our Black Knight bush stood tall enough
to brush the sill, and butterflies

clung high to its blue-velvet blooms,
so near to the pane you could see

their needle-noses poke into
each tiny trumpet. I thought Tink

might land there and wait, hanging on
by her little bare feet and hands,

just like a butterfly-- and I
swear the branch moved, though no breeze blew

as I pressed my nose to the glass.
It dipped beneath the sill and up:

a hundred eyes, each a tiny
orange flame, winked at me through the pane.

I didn't know that the Black Knight
kept all her eyes open at night.

It seemed we shared a great secret.
I'm loath to break her trust. But you

ought to know, and feel unafraid,
when Tinkerbell fails to appear--

or when something stirs in the night
where a butterfly should have been.


Edit: The "pre" tag seems to work! Thanks, Phiala!

Addendum: ...although the line breaks between stanzas don't seem to be working in Internet Explorer 6. (I don't know about IE 7.) So if you're on IE, the poem is in sixteen couplets-- it's not all one thing. The issue may not matter to anyone other than me, of course.

And another thing: Ah, just get Firefox and use that. It's better. IE stinks.


Going in

It's been a weird week. After I finished the exercises in Steering the Craft, I wasn't sure where to go next in planning the writing workshop; I've sort of been flailing around. I do need some short stories to work with, and have been doing a lot of reading to that end. I'd appreciate your* input, too. I'm looking for favorite short stories-- the ones you love, the ones that stick with you, the ones you read over and over again. Give me titles and authors, and say why you love them. Don't be shy, now. Speak to me, internets!

I'll kick us off. This morning I reacquainted myself with a story I haven't read in a while: John Updike's "A&P", which is one of those stories your favorite English teacher made you read in high school, maybe alongside Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find". What's interesting is that both of those stories find their way into the hearts of characters without actually telling much about what's going on inside them; they let the action and dialogue take care of all that instead. That's not the only or best way to tell a story, of course, but it makes for a very different reading experience from, say, something by Virginia Woolf or Joyce Carol Oates. Woolf, for example, will narrate right through a character's train of thought and feeling, noting even which thoughts make that character freeze for a breathless moment, or smile, or clench and unclench their hands; she'll connect specific thoughts and emotions to the subtlest actions and gestures. Take the following passage from To the Lighthouse**:
No, [Mrs. Ramsay] said, she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene; until, oh, what a pity that they should do it-- a hand reached out, took a pear, and spoilt the whole thing. In sympathy she looked at Rose. She looked at Rose sitting between Jasper and Prue. How odd that one's child should do that! (Woolf 163-4)
Note that the action in the scene involves mainly what Mrs. Ramsay's eyes are doing, which, on the surface, may not seem like much: she looks at a bowl of fruit, then someone takes a pear out of the bowl, and she looks elsewhere. It's the reason Mrs. Ramsay shifts her gaze which tells us something about who she is, and gives significance to the motion of her eyes: she's disappointed by what she sees. By extension, the next thing she looks at-- her daughter-- seems equally wrong somehow. These details tell us not only what sort of person Mrs. Ramsay is-- she likes everything in its place-- but what kind of relationship she has to the people around her. She would be a very different character if Woolf had told us, say, that the upheaval of the fruit in the bowl secretly delighted her, or that it pleased her to see her daughter sitting between her sister and brother while the fruit lay in a jumble.

Compare that passage to what the narrator of "A&P" sees:
She had on a kind of dirty-pink-- beige maybe, I don't know-- bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could be anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty. (Updike 221)†
Again, there's more going on here than straightforward description. The narrator's own attraction to the girl he describes is obvious: what got me; you wouldn't have known there could be anything whiter than those shoulders; I mean, it was more than pretty. But the details themselves also reveal much about the girl. She's bold, she's got her straps down, she knows she's pretty and isn't afraid to show it. The passage gives us a glimpse into the hearts of two different characters at the same time-- but not once are we told outright that the girl means for others to look at her, or that the narrator feels a desire for what he sees.

Getting inside a character that you've created yourself is tricky; it takes a certain amount of empathy, maybe even acting ability. It's not just a matter of dreaming up a character who does and says things; you also need to be able to understand why your character would say or do the things he says and does. It helps to understand things like psychology, and to be able to describe people accurately, but it takes a certain amount of imaginative ability, too, which can be hard for an adult writer to get the hang of.

I had a friend-- this was back when I was eight or so-- with whom I spent one summer playing something we called Magic Queen. I don't remember much about it now except that it was a story which we made up and acted out, serial-fashion, every day: there was an evil sorceress-queen whom we fought to overthrow, and who frequently would capture and coerce one of us into betraying the other. As far as we were concerned, it was all was absolutely real; we were exactly who we pretended to be and meant every word we said. Sometimes we upset each other so deeply in the process that the only way out was to keep on pretending our way through the story till we'd redeemed ourselves in each others' view.

For me, writing characters is a bit like what I used to do when playing Magic Queen. I feel my way into the thought patterns which might lead a character to do or say something terrible, or something good, or nothing at all, essentially by shutting myself off and pretending to be someone else; the only real difference is that now I write down whatever happens rather than act it out. (That, and there usually aren't any magic queens involved.)

But how-- I hear you ask-- on earth do you get to the point where aren't just imagining a character, but you're actually inside? Stepping outside yourself, and stretching your empathy that far, takes some practice; it's not something that comes all that intuitively, especially if you gave up make-believe when you turned eleven or twelve or thirteen-- as many of us likely did-- thinking you were supposed to have outgrown it by then. A lot of beginning writing students I've had were absolutely baffled by the idea of getting inside someone else's head-- how can you know what anyone else thinks?

I'm not sure how to answer that question, as I'm not sure how to answer a lot of questions, except to say that you can make a pretty good guess by drawing on what you might do if you were in a particular character's shoes. Here's an exercise I've been thinking of; I haven't tried it yet, though I mean to.

First part (and you don't have to share this part with anyone): think of a time that you lied, or hurt someone. Why did you lie, or hurt that person? Write down your reasons-- dispassionately, without trying to justify them-- as a series of sentences beginning with Because I ___. For example:

Because I didn't want to lose my job.
Because I wanted one more chance.
Because I couldn't get a break.
Because my dad yelled at me on the phone.

...and so forth. Write several of these, then pick two of the sentences and write a short narrative in which a character lies (or hurts someone) which begins with one of the sentences you picked, but uses the other as the real reason the character lied (or hurt someone). Do not, however, simply plop the character into your own situation, whatever that was; make up new circumstances, a new lie, or some other new offense. Take your reasons, and make the character do something else with them.

Because I haven't tried it yet, I'm not sure how tricky this exercise might be, or whether or not it does what I think it should. If anyone wants to attempt it, let me know how it worked out for you, and whether you found it helpful or interesting; feel free to email (addy's in my profile) if you'd rather not leave a comment on the blog.


*Yes, that also means you, you lovely lurking-types-- and don't think I haven't seen you lurking, because I have. I've got a Site Meter account. Hello Byrndale, PA! Hello, Isle of Wight! Hello, Baltimore! I've got a cousin in Baltimore. Is that you, Larkin?

** Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse, Penguin Popular Classics Edition. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1996.

† Updike, John. "A&P." Points of View: an Anthology of Short Stories, Revised Edition. Ed. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. New York: Mentor, Penguin Books USA, 1995. 221-26.


A photo break

Well, that about wraps it up for the Le Guin text-- though having worked through it, I think Steering the Craft is one of those books a writer can easily revisit regardless of ability or experience. It's not a manual of one-time, one-lesson exercises, where if you've done them, you've done them, and a return wouldn't pose much challenge. Steering the Craft wears well. You need it the way you need a cheese grater, or a can opener, or a big wooden spoon-- there'll always be a use for it.

Here's another exercise I've been thinking about, which the instructor of a poetry workshop I took earlier this summer used during the first session:

You take two nouns, and two verbs. Ideally you draw these blind out of a hat, though picking them randomly out of a dictionary will do. You write down all four words, consider them for a bit, and then pair them off in different combinations-- write them down, or connect them by drawing a line between them.

Once you've done that, try writing a sentence, using your favorite combinations; try to use all four words in your sentence. Then rewrite the sentence: elevate the language, be poetic, be gorgeous, be rhythmic.

If you're writing poetry, the final step of the exercise is to then write a short poem, eight to twelve lines, using the rewritten sentence; I'm thinking the exercise might work equally well for narrative prose. In that case, the final step would connect up with the very first Le Guin exercise, where you write a paragraph that's meant to be read aloud: make a gorgeous sentence, then follow the sentence into another, and then another, for a paragraph or so. Follow the line: wherever the thought takes you, or the language rhythm takes you.

I've been considering this exercise specifically in terms of a collaborative art project I've been drawn into (read: thrust myself upon, like some enraged squirrel after an unattended bagel), but I've been using pictures instead of nouns and verbs; the theme is night garden.

I like to riff off photos when writing poems, especially those I go out with my own camera to find. Poems are all about ideas married to images, anyway, which I think is why the trick works so well; it's how I came up with the poem about Mothra, and another one about watching birds*. Paintings work, too-- one of the last poems I wrote for the workshop was a response to John Singer-Sargent's Venetian Interior. (The woman at the center of the painting is fascinating, isn't she? What's she saying?)

I've had a lot of different, vagueish ideas and images flitting around in my head about night garden, but nothing really came together till I started taking pictures and thinking about them. I've been really intrigued by tree bark lately, thanks to Nathalie's wicked 'fluence-- particularly sycamore bark. There are a lot of huge, old sycamores around here, which have been shedding their stiff, paperlike bark for months and look sort of naked and vulnerable underneath.

I like the busy ant on this one, carrying off his little piece of bark like some ant-nest contractor. I had to resist the temptation to photoshop a little hard hat on him. I don't have time to put hats on ants. Bees and spiders, and even crabs, are one thing, but I won't do ants. That way madness lies.

There are also a lot of big, and very old, silver maples lining the streets around here. It's hard to capture in a photo what it's actually like to stand under the tree below: how the leaves rustle, and the way the sunlight filters through, and the hush that falls-- there's a quiet space under the tree, even with cars driving up and down the hill, not two feet away. If you ever want to feel like an especially small hobbit, stand right under one of these guys and look straight up.

If you've never met a silver maple, the leaves really are silvery underneath-- though it's not a shiny silver. This photo probably shows it best of all those I took yesterday, as well as what the leaves do to the light when you're standing under them. At least, I'm pretty sure this is another silver maple-- this is from a different tree, and as we have oaks around here, too, I'm bound to confuse them. In most cases I'm pretty certain that the silvery underside is the giveaway.

I also found a lucky nickel while I was out. I'd like to say that I only took a picture, and left the coin to benefit someone else's luck. But I'm not that nice. I pocketed it.

Lots more from my neighborhood photo safari here.


*Which I can't re-post, unfortunately, as I'm still waiting to hear back from Coal Hill Review about it.


The bit that hurts

My hub-man tells me I'm an editor at heart, and he is not wrong. I love revision. It's the easy bit, or so I tells myself. I don't have to make anything new happen, I don't have to fill any more space; instead I get to go back and mess with sentence rhythms (love that crazy rhythm), clear up anything that wants clarity, and cut anything that just doesn't work. I'm a little too good at it, actually. I've killed a lot of stories by going back and revising them before I make it to The End-- chiseling away at this detail, that sentence, whenever I get stuck, as opposed to pressing on ahead.

I've spent hours doing that sort of thing, and called it writing. You'd think the ball might have dropped for me at some point, that writing isn't like sculpting, or painting, or metalwork or knitting or anything else. You aren't supposed to chisel. Writers don't chip, pare, or hone. They don't craft, they don't forge. There's no dabbing or smudging involved, or any making of brushstrokes-- and any writer who says that's what she's doing is kidding herself. A writer has paper, and a pen-- or a computer screen and a keyboard. Those are the writer's tools, and they're for putting one word in front of the next, till what needs to be told or said is told, and said. That's it, bub. That's all.

Revision doesn't really mean making niggling changes, corrections, polishings till a piece satisfies some pre-established standard of perfection. It's about going back into the work and taking a deeper plunge: you look more deeply, you try new things, you look for possibilities and places to add richness and interest. That's more fun than niggling, but it takes some doing-- and it's one of those walls I always seem to run up against in workshops. A lot students really seem to resent the idea of having to go back to something and write again, or write more. After one draft they might say, Why should I rewrite this when I think it's perfect? And my best friend likes it? And I don't have time? And I'm only writing for myself anyway?

I suppose it's true that if you're really only writing for one reader, and that single reader's personal gratification is all that matters, then there really is no work left. You're done. In that situation I don't really know how to answer the question of why it's worth it to keep going-- to go as far and as deeply as you can, till you find where the story you're trying to tell really lives, and what truths may be found there. For me, that's where the real satisfaction comes from; it's not simply the dreaming, or the gorgeous rhythms, or the opportunity to Get Published or have someone pat me on the back. It's knowing that I've looked as far and as deeply as I could, and come back having said something true.

So anyway, I've recently finished reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, and now she and Ursula K. Le Guin are having an argument in my head. Well, not really. It's more that they're arguing the same thing, at the same time, and I'm arguing with them both because I'm being asked to edit in a way I've never edited before. Goldberg calls it being a Samurai:

So when you're in Samurai space, you have to be tough. Not mean, but with the toughness of truth. And the truth is that the truth can never ultimately hurt. It makes the world clearer and the poems* much more brilliant...You can have the courage to be honest. "There's some good stuff in here, but it doesn't make it." And go on.**

So the idea is not to perfect each paragraph you have, but to go back and start slicing through what's there with your katana-- with clarity, without attachment or emotion, because you must cut through to the truth. You look for places where the writing is most alive, and cut anything that isn't. Sometimes you even find yourself forced to make careful incisions in order to remove stuff that, while alive and positively clanging with truth, doesn't really belong in the story you're trying to tell. You're allowed to save those bits for another time.

Likewise, in chapter ten of Steering the Craft, our buddy Ursula asks us to to get out the machete and make with the hack-'n'-slash.

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote, perhaps Exercise Seven, Part Four-- and one that went over 400 words-- and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it.

This doesn't mean cutting a little bit here and there, snipping and pruning-- though that's part of it. It means counting the words and reducing them to half that many, while keeping the narrative clear and the sensory impact vivid, not replacing specifics with generalities, and never using the word "somehow."

If there's dialogue in your piece, cut any long speech or conversation in half just as implacably. (Le Guin, 147)***

The great thing about this exercise is that it fools the writer into Being Implacable by setting an arbitrary goal: check the original word count, divide that number by two, and meet the new word count. You keep checking the new word count as you work: 1000 words to go, 700, now 300, now 80. For this exercise I actually pulled a chapter, at random, out of my graduate thesis, a draft of a novel I've pretty much ignored ever since I got that piece of paper that says MFA on it. I found myself whacking out whole paragraphs I thought I loved, and needed, because there was a number to reach. You might think that kind of treatment would ruin a piece, but it didn't; at some point I'd cleared enough of the extraneous stuff-- and some of that was really, really good, like Nobel material, honestly-- to see what it was that the story really needed to be whole.

The first thing I realized-- which I'd suspected for some time but never admitted to myself-- was that it never really belonged in the novel in the first place. The second thing was that my viewpoint character had to do a Terrible Thing at the end, rather than simply wander off with an "Oh well" and a dramatic Lump-in-the-Throat. I mention these realizations because I thought both were written in stone: it had to be in the novel because I'd written it, and my heroine had to wander away crying because that was how it came out of me initially. I could only see the story one way-- till I set myself the task of cutting it down to half its original length.

I lost myself a chapter, of course, and I didn't quite make the word count I was shooting for (it was about 150 words off in the end, thanks to writing a new ending), but I got a story-- one that worked. It was an odd feeling, to know I had something completely itself on my hands. I sent it off to a magazine yesterday, quicky-like, before I could chicken out. That was nice. It's worth it to keep going.

The whole thing is too long to post here-- and I've submitted it now, so I really can't. But I'll include two versions of the following passage, just as an illustration of the actual severity of cutting we're talking about-- never mind the content, take a look at the difference in length. The scene is actually a flashback to a conversation which took place prior to the main narrative, during the previous evening; the viewpoint character is driving out to see her mother as she remembers the conversation. Part of the revision I did not only involved cutting the scene down, but moving it to the beginning of the piece, where it made a little more sense.†

Original Version

They'd all had a fight on the phone last night, she and her sister, about Uncle Eugene. It was stupid, an accident, something that shouldn't have come up at all, especially not now, when her mother was dying. Her mother got caught up in it, too, even though she barely understood what was going on; she shouldn't have been involved at all, but of course there she was, right in the middle of it, trying to absorb the barbs that her daughters flung back and forth, down the receiver, taking it all very personally. Marcia had tried to prepare Josie, God knows, before their mother even got on the line. She'd sounded worried, whispering into the receiver; her voice was muffled, and she exhaled directly down the line, which made Josie think her sister must have a hand cupped around the mouthpiece.

"Oh, Josie, it's not looking good. She's getting worse-- she's not very coherent any more, and she can't get out of bed. You'd better come out here."

"I'll be there tomorrow morning. But--"

And Josie's mother was suddenly on the other end, ranting, slipping in and out of lucidity as always but determined, insistent that they both hear what she had to say. Josie couldn't make sense of any of it.

"I'm perfectly coherent. Your Aunt Blanche pisses me off, that's all. I'm never speaking to her again. None of us should ever speak to her again."

"What? Slow down, Mom." Josie was already rubbing her forehead with one hand.


"She's angry with Aunt Blanche," Marcia began, but Josie cut her off.

"I noticed that. What's wrong, Mom?"

"Your Aunt Blanche is mean and stupid. I pity her, for how mean and stupid she is. Embarrassing me like that when I'm practically dead. Josie's mother choked back a sob, and Josie rolled her eyes before she could stop herself-- a dirty, underhanded thing to do at a time like this, she scolded herself.

"You're not practically dead, Mom."

"What do you know about it? You're not here."

Josie rubbed her forehead a little harder. "I don't understand, Mom."

Marcia broke in, quietly; it was that same wavering, barely patient tone Josie could remember her mother using. "Aunt Blanche and Red were here this afternoon, and they were talking about Uncle Eugene's funeral.

Josie started to say something, stopped. She drummed the kitchen table with her fingers. She didn't know about Uncle Eugene's funeral, hadn't seen Uncle Eugene in years. "About what?"

"Oh, that whole thing at his wake," Marcia sighed. "When that piece of broccoli slipped off Mom's plate and accidentally hit Red in the chest. They were laughing about it. And now Mom's mad."

"Don't you start," Josie's mother said. "We don't need to hear it all again."

"They just thought it was funny. Mom's angry because they laughed."

"And why shouldn't I be?" their mother rasped. "She's always trying to make me look bad any more, whenever that Red's around. Laughing at me like that. Even when she told me she'd never say anything about it again, and then she and that damn girl--"

"Auntie Red and Aunt B. were laughing at the story," Marcia said. "Not at you."

Josie sat back in her chair at her kitchen table, staring at her reflection in the window, while they argued on the other end of the line. She couldn't even imagine what it would look like, how such a thing could be possible-- a broccoli floret sailing from her mother's plate, smacking into Auntie Red's bosom. If she thought hard about it, Josie could see Marcia standing in their mother's kitchen, taking magnets off the fridge while she talked-- putting them on and taking them off, on and off, on and off, pausing to tap the freezer door with her fingernails. Marcia certainly had way of dumping things on Josie; not necessarily out of neediness, or because Josie was the eldest, but because she could never keep her mouth shut. Marcia couldn't stop talking, constantly, about everything. Josie got the feeling that she'd never been jaded. Every new experience seemed to retain a certain intensity, a special significance, a kind of rawness for her; there was always something so new and important and right then that she couldn't help telling everyone she knew about it, as though learning a thing on her own, keeping it for herself, would be too much. It was catching. Josie remembered the look on Marcia's face when she slipped and fell one winter on the cinder path that ran behind the house; she didn't cry, but sat there in the middle of the path frowning at the gash on her knee, poking a reddening handful of snow gingerly at it to clean out the cinders. Boy, look at that big hunk of skin, Marcia said, pointing to it; she could just as easily have been examining a dissected grasshopper. Huh. Look how thick it is. Who knew skin was so thick? Ow. Look, there's still more under that. If I lift it up. Ow, ow. Eesh, that hurts. It's spongy, did you see? There's a bruise, too. Ow. Josie had squatted close and peered at the rounded flap of skin that protruded slightly from Marcia's kneecap, watched blood seep up around it and dribble around the side of her leg. Marcia swabbed the area with her snowball, and together they watched the wound seep and dribble all over again. It was as though they'd just discovered their own hands for the first time.

When Josie finally spoke, her voice was quiet, papery; it surprised her. "Uncle Eugene died?" she said.

There was a brief pause. "Yes?" Marcia said.


The pause was longer this time. Josie could picture her sister pushing her hand through the hair on top of her head, nibbling the edge of her pinky nail, in the silence.

"What do you mean, when?" her mother snapped. "You were there."

"No," Josie said.

"Two years ago?" said Marcia.

Josie lowered the phone, shook her head, lifted the phone to her ear again. "Well, this is news to me. No one told me this."

"Aunt B. told everybody," said Marcia. "We thought Aunt B. took care of everything."

"You were there," Josie's mother insisted.

"Obviously I wasn't there. You sure as hell never said anything to me."

Her mother inhaled, paused, inhaled. "Don't you yell at me."

"I'm not yelling. I'm not even talking to you, Mom." Josie heard her mother choke back another sob, but ignored it. "Why didn't anyone say anything?"

"Come on, don't take it out on Mom," Marcia said. "I don't know. I never thought about it. We probably thought you couldn't make it, what with all the snow you guys get. I never heard from you. I would have heard from you if you were coming."

"You would have heard from me either way," Josie snapped.

"Well, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"You're sorry? That's it? You don't bother to tell me for two years and now all you can say is 'Oops, sorry'?"

"How can you yell at me like that?" Josie's mother sputtered. "How can you say things like that when I'm like this?"

"I haven't yelled at anyone," said Josie.

"Look, I told you that we didn't know Aunt B. didn't tell you," Marcia said. "We thought she did. We never asked."

"Jesus, Mar, it's only one state away. Why wouldn't I come? I'm coming now, aren't I?"

"Well, you usually can't."

"Well, thank you very much," Josie said, and hung up on the both of them.


They all had a fight on the phone the night before: Josie, her sister, and their eighty-year-old mother, who was dying. It was stupid, an accident, and Josie's mother got caught up in it even though she barely understood what was happening. She sobbed down the line at Josie. "Your Aunt Blanche is mean and stupid. I pity her, for how mean and stupid she is. I'm never speaking to her again. None of us should ever speak to her again."

"What? Slow down, Mom."

"Embarrassing me like that when I'm nearly dead!"

"She's angry with Aunt Blanche," Marion said. "She and Red were here this afternoon, and they were laughing about Uncle Eugie's funeral."

"Hang on. About what?"

"Oh, that whole thing at the wake," Marion sighed. "You remember. That piece of broccoli slipped off Mom's plate and hit Red in the chest."

"We don't need to hear it again!"

"Oh, Mom, they were laughing at the story. Not at you."

"She's always trying to make me look bad when Red's around."

Josie sat back in her chair at her kitchen table, her mouth hanging a little open, while they argued; a vague reflection which might have been hers shifted in the window opposite. She hadn't seen Uncle Eugie in years. She didn't know about the wake; she hadn't been to a funeral. When Josie finally spoke, her voice sounded papery. It surprised her. "Uncle Eugie died?"

"Yes?" Marion said, as though Josie had been stupid to forget.

Now Josie felt lost, though she'd only been driving for an hour, and it was impossible to lose her way just following I-70 to the state line. She could still hear her mother wailing: How could you forget? It's been two years. You were there. You were. She drove slowly-- the speedometer needle sat steady at fifty-five, it felt like standing still-- and she squinted through the glare of sunlight splaying on the windshield. The defogger seemed to have given up for good. As she flipped the defroster control on, then off, the fan whined, grinding against its gears, and fell silent. Josie smeared a clear patch into the steamy windshield with her hand and hunched to look through it at the road. It was too much: her mother dying, Uncle Eugie dead, a piece of flying broccoli that everyone witnessed but her. She couldn't even begin to imagine what it had looked like-- a broccoli floret sailing from her mother's plate, smacking into Auntie Red's bosom. Where had everyone been sitting? How far did the broccoli go before it hit Red? How hard? Did they laugh about it then? What was so funny? Josie wished she knew. It felt like they'd all pushed her into another room, then shut the door.

The first version was written at the end of 2000, or the beginning of 2001. I don't remember which. I'm a little startled by all the unnecessary dialogue tags, redundancies, overexplanations, and needless description. Copious use of adverbs and adjectives, too. And they gave me the degree anyway? How on earth did I get away with it?


*Goldberg often references poetry writing rather than prose in Writing Down the Bones because she is a poet first, but the concept applies equally to prose.

** Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986, 2005. p. 170.

***Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 147.

†It was way too long for a flashback-- real flashes of memory take only seconds, and in narrative they really can't sustain themselves for much longer than that without becoming the narrative, and that can quickly become tiresome. This is why everyone skips that Council of Elrond chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring.