Richard Bausch’s Advice on Reading Like a Writer

Most of us come to this work from having read so much, from the discovery that nothing else quite nourished us inwardly in quite the way the printed word did.  We couldn’t get enough.  We were and are rapacious readers.  Of everything.  We have a hunger to know everything that was ever written that is worth remembering, that, as Milton put it, future generations have not “willingly let die.”  Lately, in the age of the Internet and the blog, I have encountered a species of “writer” that came to it from deciding it might be a good thing to be able to call one’s self a writer.  I run into students who believe they can accomplish this by reading how-to books and manuals, as if the construction of a good story were no different than building a deck on the back of one’s house.  Good people who are misguided and in some cases duped by the industry around the how-to books.  Faulkner had the best advice: read read read.  Read even the bad ones.  And he wasn’t talking about how-to books.  And there’s Fitzgerald’s advise to Scotty: you should try to absorb six good authors a year.  Note the use of the word “absorb.”  Yes.  And my God, it’s thrilling all the time.  I just discovered Cezar Pavase.  Damn.  That same excitement I felt when I was sixteen and at the very beginning of it all and didn’t even know it.

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“Beautiful Monsters” & Point of View

In the world of Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters,” there are no adults. Usually. The story opens with a boy making breakfast for himself and his sister when he spots a grown man eating an apple from a tree. The boy has never seen an adult male, since typically the authorities round up these “Senescents” before they can cause trouble for the accepted, child-like citizens, known as the “Perennials.” Yet, instead of contacting the authorities, the boy and girl decide to hide the man, and the trio explores this illicit relationship, slowly reverting to the kind of father-children relationship the reader is more used to.

Point of view begins with a choice: what’s the best way to tell this story?

The Contributors’ Notes provide the best clues to Puchner’s decision on point of view. “[I]t was always much more about capturing what it means to have a parent,” he writes, “about distilling the entire emotional arc of having a father into twenty pages.” He continues, “I think of ‘Beautiful Monsters’ as a fable more than anything else: a stranger-comes-to-town story, in which the stranger is death” (332). These quotes are indicative of the choices he made concerning point of view, and what’s fascinating about this story is how Puchner uses this point of view to his advantage. By choosing a third-person point of view limited to the boy’s and girl’s experience, Puchner is able to tackle these themes and ideas from an interesting perspective, guide the reader through an imaginary future and control the tone of his story.

Puchner is examining “what it means to have a parent” from an unlikely angle. Whereas someone might decide to investigate this idea from a state of loss (a parent’s death, for example) Puchner looks at it the other way around, beginning with absence. He’s chosen to set the point of view from a state of ignorance—the Perennials have had no parents, and they are only vaguely aware of what adults once looked like and what their roles once were. This new angle gives Puchner ample room to condense “the entire emotional arc of having a father into twenty pages.” In approaching his story from the point of view of the Perennials, Puchner can explore the themes in his story from a fresh perspective.

This decision also helps to guide the reader. By using elements of science fiction, Puchner is in danger of defaulting to cliché or drawing too much of the reader’s attention to how the story’s world is different—standard pitfalls of the genre. Instead, the strangeness of the adult seen from the point of view of the boy gives focus to what might otherwise be an overwhelming task of describing everything different in his fictional world. The fourth sentence (“The boy has never seen a grown man in real life…”) draws up the opening scene’s central question: What’s happened to all the adults? If we imagine the story from the man’s POV, on the other hand, a few obstacles begin to crop up. The man, for example, is already aware of the way the world is (he knows about the Perennials and the Senescents, as well as what it was like during the Age of Senescence). The result might be a dull story filled with rapid-fire details about the way the story’s world is and virtually no signpost to guide the reader. Additionally, the sighting that opens the story wouldn’t be as effective, since it’s the boy’s wonder that captures the reader on the first page.

Instead, the boy’s myopic point of view helps focus the reader on the stranger, and Puchner is able to provide specific details that describe the story’s world without distracting the reader away from the man. The sister’s comic books, which depict images of fathers and grown men, for example, are a way of highlighting the strangeness of the man before them. Later, on page 198, when the man guesses the boy to be about nine years old, the boy “suspects the man’s disease has infected his brain,” and the reader is given another hint that aging, illness and death are quite different here. But we aren’t limited to the boy’s point of view; the girl’s thoughts also provide important details about the world and how this stranger’s intrusion has changed it. On page 199, she imagines “what it would be like to live with a father—a dashing giant, someone who’d buy her presents and whisk her chivalrously from danger, like the brave, mortal fathers she reads about…” Not only are fathers strange, the reader discovers, but their mortality is foreign, too. In essence, the point of view allows Puchner to (shudder—clichéd writing advice ahead) show instead of tell.

In many ways, the point of view also dictates the tone of the story more than word choice, plot or characterization. Strangeness and fear populate nearly every corner of the story, much of which is dictated by the point of view. The boy, for example, is never given a name. He doesn’t need one—he’s the eyes through which we see the story—but it’s unsettling. We aren’t even provided a description of the boy’s appearance beyond a few hints, much less a title for his identity. Likewise, the man is viewed and described as monstrous. His hands are “huge, grotesque, as clumsy as crabs.” The man’s face is streaked with ash, and his clothes handmade, his body broken and diseased. Rumors of “giant, hairy-faced beasts” foreshadowed his appearance. It’s an effective technique for the story. As a harbinger of death and decay, the man’s shocking presence presages the ending’s dark turn. The story is bookended, in fact, by images of surprise. The severed heads of the Senescents “gawk at each other from their poles. They look startled to the boy, still surprised by their betrayal.” When one turns to the boy, he sees who the beast really is: “[F]or a moment its eyes seem to get bigger, as though it’s seen a monster.”

It appears Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” is about more than just “what it means to have a parent,” but also what it means to lose one, the fear one feels at the idea of a parent’s death, and the monster that fear can turn one into. By choosing a point of view limited to the boy and girl, Puchner is able to examine these ideas from a new perspective, guide the reader through his imagined world, and control the tone of the piece.


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Characterization in Sharon Solwitz’s “Alive”

Best American Short Stories 2012 – “Alive” by Sharon Solwitz

Three years ago, a cousin I was very close to died in a car accident. Both of us were only children, born exactly a year apart, and we were the nearest things to brothers either of us would ever know. I was traveling alone in China at the time, on a break from teaching and trying to work on a novel. After returning to China from the funeral, a new kind of aimlessness set in. The novel collapsed. Grief gnawed at my bones.

At the advice of a friend, I wrote about it. To a certain extent, it helped. I gained a greater understanding of the effects that grief can have on people, and I explored the experiences of others close to the death of a very good and very smart young man. But writing fiction based on real-life had several pitfalls.

When I discovered that Sharon Solwitz’s “Alive” was fueled by her own experience in the loss of her thirteen-year-old son, and that the story’s events are mostly based on reality, the story gained gravity. This wasn’t just because the characters became realer (they were already very real). It was because it highlighted Solwitz’s skill in managing her fictional characters and navigating the based-on-true-events obstacles I’d largely surrendered to.

On one level, this is an excellent story to explore fictional character. Solwitz very deftly characterizes the fractious mind of a child. On another, it begs to ask the question, “How closely tied are our fictional characters to their real-life counterparts?”

The first scene sets the mood for Dylan’s state of mind. He is bored, isolated, yearning to feel. Even the story’s early details come as bland statements of fact: “He was ten; it was Saturday; Ethan was mad at him.” When he pesters his brother, he says his brother’s name “with more force than he felt. Force he wanted to feel.” A few paragraphs later, Solwitz writes, “He was trapped in a world without joy or the possibility of joy.” Solwitz is setting the charge that is rigged to explode in the story’s climax.

Solwitz’s greatest strokes are present in her depiction of Dylan, but she also expertly handles the characterization of her other two central characters. The mother is introduced drinking from a coffee mug that reads, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” This early sign of independence reflects her later decision to go skiing in spite the boys’ father’s protests. Moreover, she’s depicted sitting in front of a laptop with a blank screen. This is a subtle hint at her occupation, as well as a possible mirror held up to Solwitz the writer, but it’s also a suggestion that she is having trouble. Subsequently, Solwitz reveals a playful conflict when Dylan asks where his dad is. “Dad—why­ Dad?” his mother responds. “Isn’t Mom good enough?” The tone is lighthearted, but the message is clear: with a dying child in their midst, the parents’ relationship is strained—even her identity as mother and caregiver, perhaps, is troubled.

Solwitz sets her most cautious eye on Nate, the ill older brother. He is a paragon of the ideal child—diligent, coolheaded, kind. Perseverant despite his illness, Nate is introduced doing his homework, waving off his younger brother’s pleas to go outside. When Dylan exclaims that he wished he had cancer, too, his mother chides him for it, but it is Nate who comes to Dylan’s rescue: “He didn’t mean it…Give him a break, Thea!” he says, using his mother’s given name. When she turns her criticism on him (“It’s mother to you, boy.”), he kiddingly tells her to “Chill,” a common Nate refrain. A few pages later, Dylan has a tantrum over being forced to wear a helmet, and it is Nate who tries to calm him down (“Yo. Little bro…Chill, man?”).

E M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel mention the usefulness of flat characters as minor roles, and Solwitz uses this technique to her advantage. The father, for example, is a flat character, but he’s given a certain dimension when Solwitz writes, “Their father was slow to express pleasure but even slower to anger; his pleasure in their existence, in the entity of family, discharged clouds of tenderness.” In the story, his utility is as a foil to Thea’s desire to let the kids have some fun, but he isn’t just the stick-in-the-mud father; he is good, loving, simply a little protective. Likewise, the teenagers at the ski rental hut are flat, but they’re given qualities that Dylan can admire. They’re foul-mouthed and unmonitored, the epitome of freedom and excitement that Dylan desires.

As a story with ties to real-life experiences, Solwitz makes a wise choice in keeping the third-person narration close to Dylan. A less capable writer might choose the set a story this close to reality from her own point of view. The result might get too close to home, the story too self-involved, limited to memoir and without the possibilities of exploration that fiction can provide.

Instead, she examines it through the prism of a ten-year-old boy, one whose experiences of the world are magnified by his unwieldy emotions and supercharged desires. In doing so, she carefully depicts a family trying to deal with the illness of a son.

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Dialogue in Jess Walter’s “Anything Helps”

Best American Short Stories 2012 – “Anything Helps” by Jess Walter

Dialogue in Jess Walter’s “Anything Helps” serves to develop characters, convey important plot elements, and create tension. But I hope it isn’t too much of a stretch to use the dialogue discussion to highlight “voice.” This story is the perfect example of a character’s voice coming through a narration that isn’t first person, and it’s worth looking at how Walter does it. For one thing, Walter uses diction and style to characterize Bit.

Walter utilizes specific verbs and nouns to convey information about Bit. On page one, Walter writes, “…he got tossed from the Jesus beds…” (emphasis mine). These are carefully chosen terms Walter is using to put Bit’s voice in the mind of the reader. Walter could have just as easily said, “…he was told to leave the church-affiliated shelter,” or any other variety of bland and lesser descriptions. Instead, Walter dramatizes the action (tossed, not turned away) and highlights Bit’s alienation from their services (Jesus beds, Bit thinks with disdain). These early lines of street vernacular serve to establish Bit’s character and his voice, which sticks through the rest of the story.

In the subsequent scene, Walter also uses dialogue to create a humorous exchange while also setting up important plot points. As Bit panhandles on the side of the road, a man in a gold convertible appears and says he’ll give him money if Bit honestly tells him what he’ll do with it. “The new Harry Potter book,” Bit says. The wealthy driver plays it off as a joke, and to the reader, it’s funny, too, but Bit’s serious about it. A few pages later, he buys the book, and it turns out it’s for Bit’s son. The scene works on a number of levels. It’s funny, but it also reveals plot and character motivation quite succinctly.

Walter also highlights the repetitive nature of Bit’s life when he uses the “…is always saying” refrain. The life of an addict is characterized by cyclical periods of highs and low, pain and pleasure, and on page 297, Walter refers to this when he writes,

Consequences, Carter is always saying.

I feel shitty, Bit’s always saying.

Let’s talk about you, Andrea the social worker is always saying.

Especially in the throws of recovery, an addict’s life might feel repetitive, the people always telling him the same thing. This technique helps establish this theme.

Dialogue is probably most important in the penultimate scene in which Bit meets his son, Nate. There’s a quiet tension here, as Bit tries to get Nate to take a book as a gift, though Nate has already read it. The distance between the two characters is apparent. Bit doesn’t realize Nate’s already read the book; he doesn’t even know that school’s started. “And school starts…” Bit says. “Three weeks ago,” Nate responds. In this simple exchange, Walter creates a powerful scene with careful word and grammatical choices.

Bit slips into father mode carefully, beginning the sentence with an unnecessary “And,” and the ellipsis shows the father trailing off, searching for the answer to the question that’s really been asked (“When does school start?”). When Nate responds, he does show in a statement of three terse words, suggesting he doesn’t want to recognize how far removed his father is, either. The exchange is brief, almost like neither character really wants to get into the specifics of their lives, but they feel like they have to at least play these roles.

In the end, Walter pays close attention to the words his characters speak. Not only is dialogue used to convey the emotions and thoughts of the character, but to create tension, highlight important themes and establish a narrative voice.

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Detail in Mike Meginnis’ “Navigators”

Best American Short Stories 2012 – “Navigators” by Mike Meginnis

As someone who caught the tail end of the NES-generation games, this story strikes a special chord for me. Told in limited third-person narration from Joshua’s point of view, “Navigators” details Joshua and his father’s experience playing a fictionalized video game called Legend of Silence. The game is loosely based on games from the NES era—Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventure, etc.—but it contains a significant philosophical twist. Instead of attaining power-ups, such as the Super Mushroom in the Super Mario series, the object of Legend of Silence is to collect all of the game’s “power-downs,” which gradually debilitate and deplete the game’s main character, Alicia, who was once queen of the virtual kingdom.

For the story’s two characters, the game serves as an escape. Joshua’s mother’s absence is central to the story’s tension, and the characters’ poverty is an essential theme. In a story where a lot of the main action occurs on the video game screen, it would be difficult to explore these ideas. But in Meginnis’ expert hands, carefully placed details make the story vivid and complex.

From the beginning, the reader senses that the video game and its completion are very important to the characters. In the opening sentence, even time itself is wedged between in-game events: “After they found the metal boots but before the dirt clod, Joshua’s father bought graph paper at Wal-Mart.” Joshua’s father hangs the six- by seven-foot sheet of graph paper on their apartment wall to serve as a map for the game. When Meginnis writes, “In games, where it was so often so easy to lose perspective, but also in life,” he is drawing a connection between maneuvering through the game and navigating the characters’ lives. And when the father says, “If we map the whole world…we can stop getting lost,” the reader might wonder if he’s only talking about the game.

How this piece deals with poverty is an excellent exercise in detail and how carefully placed elements can magnify principal motifs. The reader sees the characters’ poverty in their cheese-puff-crusted clothing, discount saltines and 73/27 ground beef. When the father neglects to pay the bill, the gas is shut off—“again.” Halfway through the story, the pair is forced into a smaller apartment, and they “[experiment] with a mostly vegetarian diet.” Moreover, the allegorical nature of the game—that they, too, are burdened each passing moment with their own “power-downs”—enhances the story’s central themes of poverty, suffering and escape.

Meginnis’ details also establish a sense of alienation, both accidental and self-inflicted. On page 98, the father tries “to talk to other fathers about [the game] at Boy Scout barbecues and overnight camps, but they did not listen.” Later, he deletes their voicemails—“even the new ones’’—without listening to them, presumably to avoid someone. When an unknown caller rings their phone, Joshua answers, and though he doesn’t recognize the voice, he wants “to find the old answering machine tape, or something else with his mother’s voice, to see if it sounded the same.” The reader can speculate, based on Joshua’s father’s reaction (“Crazy bitch,” he says on page 102), that the caller is indeed Joshua’s mother. In this slight series of details, the reader sees how severe the dissolution of their relationship is: even his mother’s voice is alien.

With another subtle series of clues, Meginnis characterizes the father as a recently separated, middle-aged father. First, Joshua notes that his father is losing his hair on page 101. On page 102, Joshua notices coupons for gyms set on the kitchen table. On the next page, after they’ve moved into a new apartment, Joshua sees his father’s “still-boxed ab roller.” One can surmise the father’s personality from these few details. The unused coupons and the packed ab roller suggest an intent on personal improvement but a lack of willingness to follow through—a very reasonable characteristic for a recent divorcé and one that adds depth to an otherwise straightforward narrative.

This is all worth noting because Meginnis accomplishes multidimensional characters in only a few pages of real-life depiction. Most of the action occurs in the game, and through Meginnis’ careful use of detail, a complete, sophisticated world is built.

Posted in Best American Short Stories 2012, family, Fate, maturation, Melancholy, Mike Meginnis, relationships, Short Story, Third-person limited | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Theft

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

-From “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo

“The principal supporting business now/is rage.”

Thank you, Mr. Hugo. I’m going to steal that.

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“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” by Jim Shepard

The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories

originally published in Electric Literature

I’ve watched Jim Shepard undertake a massive project of research and imagination for about a year now. When a story in 2010’s Best American Short Stories appeared as “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” in which Dutch characters undergo the effects of climate change and the eventual failure of the dikes for which the Netherlands is known, I assumed a neophyte writer with a graceful knowledge of Dutch water systems had gotten a story published in McSweeney’s. It wasn’t until a few months later that Jim Shepard was on NPR, talking about his project.

Like his earlier book, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Shepard takes an astounding ability in research to craft expertly detailed short stories of erudition and authenticity. The new book, published last year, is called You Think That’s Bad, and its topics include the life of the special-effects creator of Godzilla, the Pacific Theater of WWII, and mountaineering in the Himalayas. It is clear that we are dealing not only with a master of the historical short story, but with a master of the contemporary one.

“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” does not disappoint. The characters are engaged in the dangerous work of avalanche research in the late 1930s. Headquartered 9,000 feet above Davos, the group, who calls themselves “Die Harschblödeln,” or the Frozen Idiots, battles the cold while compiling a book on snow cover.

As you might imagine, each character has a particularly personal interest in uncovering the mysteries of avalanches: almost everyone has experienced an intimate tragedy at the white hands of a snowslide. The narrator’s central, human conflict here was born from one such experience when his brother was swept away during a ski outing.

But these histories and tensions serve to hold together the most important aspect of this story: the details.

From the grand to the minute, realistic details carry the narrative weight and excellence of this piece. Each character has a thorough backstory of professional experience and personal investment. Haefeli, the group’s unofficial leader, lost his father to an avalanche when he was eighteen. That day, the snow

 dropped down the steeper slopes above his town with its blast clouds mushrooming out on both sides. His father had sent him to check their rabbit traps on a higher forested slope and had stayed behind to start the cooking pot. The avalanche dropped five thousand vertical feet in under a mile and crossed the valley floor with such velocity that it exploded upward two hundred feet on the opposite hillside, uprooting spruces and alders there with such force that they pinwheeled through the air. The snow cloud afterward obscured the sun.

Later, when the narrator describes the loss of his brother to an avalanche, the natural beauty of their surroundings provides all the necessary detail. Before making it to the summertime ski run, they traversed “meadows where miniature butterflies wavered on willow herbs and moss campion.”

I shouldn’t be so astounded by the imagination of a well-known writer, but I am. The specificity of details here—the rabbit traps, the snow falling five thousand vertical feet in under a mile, willow and campion—all serve to foment not only an image of what’s happening but the believability that it’s true.

The verisimilitude of the facts presented here serves to downplay the fictive nature of the story. It seems important that in an era when nonfiction reigns supreme, a good story with a hearty soup of detail can ring true.

The rest of the story follows the usual progression of plot. The narrator regains contact with Ruth, the childhood friend who was with him when his brother was swallowed by the avalanche. Ruth and the narrator’s brother were in love before the avalanche, the narrator discovers, and a child was born. The tensions that mire their attempts at rebuilding a relationship pull the story along. But the human conflict is disrupted by a climactic scene in which the researchers must rescue a group of stranded Germans.

The story is resolved with what seems characteristic Shepard style. There is no epiphany—Shepard, like Charles Baxter, is among a group of writers who end their stories in medias res, in a way that fights the inevitability supposed by a story about avalanche researchers—and the end hangs in a sort of experience of inevitability that is not too unsatisfying. After realizing his work is all he has, he imagines himself swallowed in an avalanche “tonight, or tomorrow night, or some night thereafter, [when] the slopes above us will lose their patience and sound their release.”

The broader metaphors of fate are served up by the avalanche, which can strike without warning and from which there is no escape. The incalculable factors that serve up an avalanche are as mysterious as kismet. Perhaps it is indeed inevitable that the researchers be eventually consumed by the fate that hurdles down at them.

Interview Links:


Posted in Fate, First Person, Historical fiction, in medias res, Jim Shepard, Melancholy, Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011, Short Story, Subtle | Leave a comment