Archive for the ‘essay’ Category

The Delicate Art of Character Folding

You probably knew, when you started writing, that you’d signed on for murder. I was warned well in advance: One of my favorite childhood books was Lois Lowry’s The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, in which the title character finds the notebook of the man her mother is dating. “Eliminate the kids,” one note says. She and her brother swing into crime-fighting mode, only to discover in the end that this man, a writer, was talking about editing characters out of his work-in-progress.

Later, as I studied writing, I’d hear authors lament the characters they’d had to erase from draft two, the ones who “felt like real people” to them. Or they’d talk about the ones they kept around because, despite the fact that they served no real purpose in the narrative, they’d become old friends.

In fact, our first drafts are often overpopulated. There’s a reason: Your character needs a boss, so you invent a boss. He’s a typical boss. He wears a suit and does boss-like things. “Get me those numbers, Stan!” he says. You need someone to overhear the nighttime argument, so you invent the nosy neighbor. She’s always trimming her azaleas, of course. Naturally, she’s a widow in her sixties. Your character can’t get over someone, so you invent the ex. A cruel, beautiful ex who appears only in flashback, saying belittling things about your guy’s manhood. By halfway through a novel, you’ve got enough fictional characters to fill a cruise ship.

And how could you possibly cut any of them? If you lose the boss, you lose the whole storyline at work. You lose the neighbor, and all the pressure goes out of the fight scene. So you keep them all—which is often the wrong answer. Or you bite the bullet and have a stiff drink and sit down to cut those people, cut those scenes. Which is quite possibly the wrong answer too, and almost definitely unnecessary.

I faced this dilemma in my second novel, The Hundred-Year House. The last third of the book was vastly overpopulated. (It was set at an artists’ colony in 1929, so I needed lots of eccentrics running around. Did I need twenty of them? No.) I realized, with horror, that three characters served largely the same function. I had two celebrities there (the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the poet Marianne Moore) and a fictional artist named Zilla Silverman. All were serene, charismatic. All spent their days working, their nights socializing with the other artists. There were differences, certainly. Moore was a baseball fan and only wore black. O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was jealously waiting for her back in New York. Zilla was in love with a choreographer staying at the colony. I’d spent months researching O’Keeffe’s and Moore’s lives. I’d read an enormous volume of O’Keeffe’s correspondence, just to get her voice right. “Yes yes yes yes yes,” she’d written to her husband in one ecstatic overflow—and I’d put those words in her mouth in my book.

But they couldn’t all stay. Nor could they all go. I mourned for a few hours. I went for a very long walk around the grounds of the retreat where I was staying. If I’d been home, I’d have ignored the problem for days; there, I had to make a decision. I came back inside and saved my document with the date, and then I began outlining (on a scrap of notepaper) what the story would look like if these women weren’t cut, but combined. Folded carefully together like egg whites and cake batter. What would a Georgia-Marianne-Zilla hybrid look like? What would she do? Well, for starters, the fact that she’d have a jealous husband would make the relationship with the choreographer much more interesting. And of course she could dress in black. Why not? She could share Moore’s wicked sense of humor. I’d name her Zilla (I was a little worried all along about O’Keeffe or Moore feeling like superfluous cameos), but the painting she’d be working on that summer on would recognizably, to O’Keefe fans, be Oak Leaves, Pink and Gray. She could be famous. Everyone could know about the nude portraits her photographer husband had exhibited of her. She could say “Yes yes yes yes yes.”

And suddenly I had, instead of three characters each serving one function, one character with complexities and contradictions and nuance. I had a human being more three-dimensional than any of my original characters had been. (more…)

Emerging Writers – Age Is Just A Number

I had the pleasure of discussing literary magazines on a panel at The Poets & Writers live event in Portland, Oregon, this October. The Q&A included The Masters Review, and other local lit mags Tin House, Poor Claudia, and Gertrude.

The bulk of attendees were new to publishing. While a few had published novels, short stories, essays, and poems, most were seeking practical advice on where to submit, how to do so, and what to expect from the process. They wanted to know what topics we were interested in and how we selected stories. They were a group of doctors, educators, parents, and book lovers. Most of them were over fifty.

At the meet and greet later that evening, many attendees were curious how The Masters Review identifies an emerging writer. I received questions like, “Do you have age restrictions? I’m not young, but I’m almost done with the final draft of my first novel.” Another writer at our booth had just signed with an agent. She said, “I’ll be sixty-four next year. No under-forty lists for me!”

It makes intuitive sense that many new and emerging writers are young. They’re out of college, many of them recent MFA graduates, and after years of early practice they’re finding success in publishing.

But it also seems there’s a bias that encourages a focus on young writers. We live in a culture that applauds early achievement, as evident in lists like The New Yorker’s Twenty Under Forty, Granta’s 20 British Authors Under 40The National Book Award’s 5 Under 35, The PEN American Emerging Writer’s Prize (writers under 35), or Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, which remain exclusive to writers of a certain age.

Ideas that are “new” and “fresh” — both terms that sell well and generate attention — are easy to associate with youth. But consider the practicalities preventing people from dedicating the time to write until later in life: jobs, families, and education are just a few of many examples that, when examined, amount to rich histories. Older authors have the benefit of knowledge from experience, and they bring maturity, perspective, and emotional honesty to their writing.

While lists like those above recognize extremely accomplished and well-deserving writers — and funnel our attention to new work — they offer a limited focus. By categorizing writers according to age rather than experience, a number of new and talented voices are missing from the spotlight.

There are far fewer lists restricted to debut authors over the age of forty. In an interview with George Saunders, The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman says, “You published your book Civil Warland in Bad Decline when you were thirty-seven, which is a little late by current standards…” And she’s right about that standard, though it’s a shame this is true.

If you were to compile a list of accomplished writers who published later in life you would find the following: Charles Bukowski (published his first novel, Post Office, at 51), Helen Dewitt (The Last Samurai, age 44), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, age 49), Anna Sewell (Black Beauty, age 57), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, age 66), and Mary Higgins Clark (age 41). A friend of mine, Susan Hill Long recently published her debut Whistle in the Dark, which won the Oregon Book Award for Children’s Literature. She was born in the 60s.

The Masters Review focuses exclusively on new and emerging writers, offering a quality platform for writers who are at the start of their careers. We define an emerging writer by experience in publishing, rather than age. Our qualification is that submitters have not yet published a novel-length work (not including short story collections) by a major publisher at the time of submission. We feel, even those writers with a few publications under their belts are still proving themselves in a competitive industry and could benefit from increased exposure.

There is a wonderful group of magazines, publishers, and organizations that qualify new or emerging writers in a similar way. Glimmer Train, the storied literary magazine, defines emerging authors as, “writers whose fiction has not appeared in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000.” The Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writer’s Fellowship qualifies its writers this way: “Applicants can be of any age, but must be in the early stages of their careers as fiction writers and will not have had the support needed to achieve major recognition for their work.” And Ploughshares holds an emerging writer’s contest, “for writers who have never published or self-published a book.”

I explained our guidelines to the writers at our Poets & Writers booth and they were relieved. Still, their confusion reflects a gap that exists for writers of a certain age finding home for their work as “emerging” “new” or “debut.” It’s wonderful to see publications advocating for writers of all ages, but it seems there is still work to be done.

by Kim Winternheimer

“How To Shit” by Ottessa Moshfegh

omoshfeghIt is a delusion to think that the rules of society reflect any moral truths about human nature. The same is true about the “rules” for writing fiction. Any paradigm that exists in our collective consciousness is just that—a model of interpretation, or a structure within to project a reality. Any significant paradigm shift will incite anxiety: “If I gave up this reality for another one, would I even exist?” When radically innovative art is condemned by the mainstream, it is often an expression of that existential anxiety. There is nothing more upsetting to the status quo than the assumption that such a thing doesn’t even exist.

When you read a story or a novel, you suspend your allegiance to your own reality and entertain one the writer has created. If its discrepancy from your own reality is too great, perhaps you’ll say, “I can’t get into this,” and put the book down. Or maybe it’s just a bad piece of writing. There’s plenty of that out there. Still, the act of reading fiction is truly magical. The imaginative power to make what is only literarily true feel literally true is a wonderful aspect of human consciousness. It means that we are capable of imagining realities other than our own. Furthermore, a great piece of writing can permanently shift our paradigms. “This book changed my life,” people say.

I don’t like talking about “how to write fiction.” I don’t like “craft” terms. Discussions about craft reinforce what feels to me to be an institutionalized paradigm for fiction dictated by the publishing industry. When I think of “narrative,” conventionally speaking, my mind refers to this: a character (with thoughts, feelings, instincts, will, an archive of experience and habituated mannerisms) appears in an environment. A situation, usually borne out of conflict or desire, presents itself. The character does something. Oftentimes the outcome is compromising. Drama ensues. A new aspect of the character is created out of adversity. The character does something else. The effect births a new reality. The character has been changed. It’s all very reasonable. It’s also very limited. In my writing, I like to use the mainstream paradigm and fuck with it to point out its limitations. I’ve found that this is one way to expand consciousness without alarming people of their own delusions too violently.

A few years ago, when I was very broke, I made up my mind to write a novel that would appeal to a greater audience than my previous work. I deliberately embraced the conventional narrative structure in order to reach the mainstream. I pictured a plausible audience of avid readers as people who live vicariously through books—in other words, people with boring lives. I considered the personal paradigm of a bored, imaginatively escapist person. Boredom is a symptom of denial, I thought. A bored person is a coward, essentially. So I conceived of a character trapped by social mores, who plumbs the depths of her own delusions and does something incredibly brave; I thought that would be fun for the kind of audience I was writing to. Thus Eileen was born. And I did make a little money. I’m telling you this because many of my creative decisions were motivated by the emptiness of my bank account. I looked at the dominating paradigm and I abused it.

And so you could say that I participated in the paradigm I’m so critical of. I drank the Kool-Aid. I ate the shit. But my aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change. (more…)

Craft Lessons and Prompts – Stream of Consciousness and Virginia Woolf

In our Craft Lessons and Writing Prompts series we take a quick look at a craft element and pair it with a writing exercise. It’s a great way to learn and inspire yourself. Writing exercises are wonderful for generating new material and working outside your comfort zone. In our first of these mini-lessons, we’ll take a look at the narrative device stream of consciousness.

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” – Virginia Woolf

virginia-woolfTwo of Virginia Woolf’s most notable novels, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, are good examples of the narrative device stream of consciousness. At the time, the use of this device was highly experimental. It has been used in Ulysses by James Joyce, but in a way that was more traditional for the time. Much has been written about stream of consciousness and there are many fussy definitions. (There is a wonderful essay on the topic written by Yanxia Sang for those who want to take a closer look.) However, for our purposes, the most important thing to know about stream of consciousness is that it is not a synonym for internal monologue. Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that is the written equivalent to a character’s thought process—or a stylized way of thinking out loud. It is often written in first person and is less ordered and occasionally more jumbled than an internal monologue, which is most often written in third person and follows a slightly more structured flow of thoughts to depict a characters’ opinions of his environment.

Virginia Woolf applies what is called indirect interior monologue to her writing, (ahem, fussy definitions) which allows her to explore her characters’ stream of consciousness in the third person. For all intents and purposes, this is stream of consciousness as we know and discuss it.

So what is so experimental about stream of consciousness? Before Woolf, writers had used this technique, but their application of it was chaotic and difficult to follow, and it wasn’t very well received by readers. Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway by exploring the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of her characters, which was very experimental for the time. It was an entirely new way of looking at the world. Today, writers use stream of consciousness to address the internal explorations of characters as well as a foundation for structuring whole novels (think Remains of the Day or the recent Inherent Vice). Woolf’s work exploring the thoughts, feelings, moods, and expectations of characters in a seamless way changed the structure of writing in a significant way.

Stream of Consciousness Exercise:

Free Association is the most commonly known exercise to explore stream of consciousness, which is precisely why for this prompt we are going to avoid it. We need to think of stream of consciousness in a way where it is explored in a fresh or more abstract way. For this exercise, think of an object (animal, plant, mountain, stop sign, rubik’s cube, etc.)—anything that does not normally have a voice—and write a stream of consciousness paragraph depicting its thoughts, feelings, moods, or opinions about the world around it.

At The Masters Review, we are big proponents of writing having a purpose larger than the strangeness of its form, so try to think about what this object’s point of view is commenting on. Why is it important for readers to hear from this perspective? Keep in mind that Virginia Woolf often used punctuation — a lot of semi colons and parentheticals — to give structure to a structure-less form.

“With her unique devices such as guiding phrases, semicolons, and parenthesis embroidered to her interior monologue, Virginia Woolf successfully overcomes the shortcomings of stream of consciousness novel of being incoherent and chaotic, and achieves great explicitness, coherence, vividness and unity in presenting the characters’ inner world.” — Yanxia Sang

Feel free to share your work in the comments! Happy Writing!

Fear Works – Scary Stories in Children’s Literature

This October we examined the difference between terror and horror and what is so scary about when the familiar turns frightening. Kate Bernheimer’s “The Punk’s Bride,” Manuel Gonzales’s “What Happened to Eloise,” and Ben Hoffman’s “Other Dangers” is a crop of fiction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It is all in honor of our favorite month, and with one day left before Halloween, we’re not stopping yet.

fear works

The foundation of scary stories has its roots in children’s literature. Some of the first stories we hear as kids are fairy tales and nursery rhymes, narratives that are traditionally dark. Fear is largely embraced in children’s literature, and for good reason. Because it works. There is a lot to be gained from the scary stories we cherished as kids.

“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.” —  Neil Gaiman

What Gaiman refers to is the idea that reading a scary story becomes safe via the boundaries of a book. He goes on to say: “You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again.” This idea is echoed again and again regarding dark content for children. The fact that it takes place in a story allows kids to exert control over the situation. They can shut the book and turn away. Similarly, children can more easily understand that an event or character is not real or even possible. It allows them to approach horror as an adventure, as opposed to something paralyzing. Sheldon Cashdan, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst says: “Every time the witch dies, it magically restores children’s faith in their ability to conquer their own troublesome emotions.”

Suddenly, the thrill of a scary story becomes more than a fun way to spend a dark evening — it becomes key to development.

“Scary stories play an important role in children’s emotional education, allowing them to identify and control their darker feelings — a good coping mechanism. It’s a chance for them to experience a really potent fantasy and almost live it, without any of the consequences.” — Lindsay Knight, Head of Children’s Books for Random House Australia

Through the journey of a book children can examine terrible circumstances and emerge with a new set of tools, a new way to handle fear. The presence of goblins, ghouls, and ghosts in literature allows for scary stories to act as a vessel into a fantastic land, one where the world has turned a shade darker. In these literary worlds, if kids can’t cope with fear, the consequences are terrible.

The value in facing ones fears through reading about them becomes clear: it is an experience that (one hopes, at least) can’t be gained in the real world. Speaking on the necessity of evil in literature, Neil Gaiman says:“There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.” And perhaps what is most interesting about the bulk of scary stories for children is that this triumph must occur in the absence of “safe” adults—without mothers and fathers. Many villains in children’s literature (the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the “Other Mother” in Coraline, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Miss Trunchbull in Matlida, along with countless others ) are adults. However, in the most effective stories in which kids conquer wickedness, children act alone or with the help of their peers. (more…)

Lincoln Michel on The Vocabulary of Fear

lincoln_essay_introWhile it is common wisdom that the goal of art is to stir emotions, the vocabulary of creative writing doesn’t always reflect that. MFA classes and craft essays teach us dozens of terms for character (foil, stock, antagonist, antihero, etc.) and plot (climax, denouement, twist, subplot, etc.), but leave us only a few ill-defined words for the actual emotional and psychological effects of a work on a reader.

 Or at least that feels like the case in literary fiction. The horror genre provides a counterpoint, giving us an array of terms with which to dissect and understand one of the most primal human responses: fear.

2008-08-06-a-devils-distinctionTerror (left) and Horror (right) as drawn by Charles Darwin in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

One of the oldest distinctions in horror fiction is the difference between “terror” and “horror.” In their literary usage, these terms were famously defined by the Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe in her essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Radcliffe, although mostly forgotten today, was a best-selling novelist who helped define and legitimize Gothic fiction—the genre from which horror descends. On the surface, horror and terror seem like synonyms, but Radcliffe argues that “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

So what is the difference? Terror is the feeling of dread and apprehension at the possibility of something frightening, while horror is the shock and repulsion of seeing the frightening thing. Terror is the sounds of unknown creatures scratching at the door; horror is seeing your roommate eaten alive by giant rats. Terror is the feeling a stranger may be hiding behind the door; horror is the squirt of blood as the stranger’s knife sinks in.

Many of the most iconic moments in horror fiction—Poe’s unseen beating heart, the unexplained noises in Hill House, Dracula slinking in the shadows—are driven by terror. They are partially obscured, letting our minds swell with tension and dread.

Why does terror enliven us while horror deadens? For Radcliffe, terror in its ambiguity moves us toward yet another effect: “the sublime.” The sublime is the confused awe at greatness and darkness our mind can’t grasp. We are both attracted and repelled by it. To Edmund Burke—whose philosophy Radcliffe references—it is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The sublime is often associated with nature—think hurricanes, looming mountains, the infinite expanse of the sea—yet it is particularly effective in art. This is because the mind requires a little distance to feel the sublime. If you are caught in a tornado, you may feel nothing except panic. But if you read a powerful description of a tornado destroying a town, you may feel the sublime. (more…)

Flash Fiction Techniques: Part 2


Other than the length of one thousand words or less, how do you describe flash fiction? In the first installment of this essay, I discussed how generalizations about flash are often contradictory. (If you missed part one, read it here.) Part of the beauty of flash is that it resists easy definition. Within that one thousand word limit is an incredible freedom. Of course, this is true of all fiction, but the variety of form in flash is particularly remarkable. Each piece dictates its own rules, creates its own universe. So, then: how do you talk about technique in flash fiction? Discussing the techniques we love best (without making generalizations) can provide inspiration for writers who experiment in the genre, and give longtime readers of flash an outlet for their impressions. Here, I discuss five techniques used in my favorite flash stories. Certainly, there are innumerable others. Share your favorite with us.

The Progression of The Surreal

Authors use the surreal in flash in all sorts of different ways. One thousand words is often the perfect size for an alternate reality. One technique that I’ve been drawn to, in particular, is this: many times, a surreal conceit is introduced at the beginning of the story, and then progresses to its logical end. Here, a complex surreal idea fuels the story.

In “Babies,” Amelia Gray introduces the conceit in the first sentence: “One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight.” The story that follows develops this premise.

In “The Crown,” by Ben Loory, a dishwasher finds an invisible crown in the sink, and the rest of the action is propelled by his reaction to this discovery.

In “The House’s Beating Heart,” Kate Folk takes the reader inside a house that, as the title suggests, has a live, pulsing heart. Of course, the question soon arises: where are the building’s other organs?

Imposed Restraints

Many of the pieces of flash I love best operate under some type of formal restraint (other than the word limit, of course), whether the author consciously imposed it on the story before writing it, or not. I was lucky enough to do an independent study on the short short with my advisor in grad school, and she pointed out to me that most flash doesn’t contain all of the formal “elements of fiction.” Many times, a story will focus on just one. Whether it’s allowing just one element of fiction, or limiting the story to all questions, all answers, or all dialogue—flash often flourishes under further restraints.

I love Jessica Soffer’s “Beginning, End,” a story that that is so moving because it is all plot.

In “The Mountainview Middle School Geography Bee,” James Davis limits his story to the dialogue of the mediator for this zany event.


Flash Fiction Techniques: Part 1


“It needs to be longer” used to be a common story critique. However, these days, our editors will sometimes comment that a submission might work better as flash. We’ve said this about experimental stories with a repetitive form, about submissions in which there is simply one interesting, tiny kernel that is enough to carry a story, and about shorter stories that could use some whittling. I’m sure, in the future, we’ll make the same comments about entirely different styles of fiction, too. But maybe, if we may be so bold, we should first answer the question: what makes a flash story succeed?

Flash fiction is being embraced by popular authors from Dave Eggers to Lydia Davis, as well as by esteemed literary publications from Tin House to NANO Fiction. But what is flash fiction, exactly? Other than its length of one thousand words or fewer, how can we characterize the genre?

A better question might be: do we even want to try? It’s impossible to make generalizations about flash fiction and the way it works because, aside from its length, there is really no other description that can even be generally applied to the genre. Statements by authors about flash often contradict each other. In his New York Times essay, Grant Faulkner writes: “Flash communicates via caesuras and crevices. There is no asking more, no premise of comprehensiveness, because flash fiction is a form that privileges excision over agglomeration, adhering more than any other narrative form to Hemingway’s famous iceberg dictum: only show the top 10 percent of your story, and leave the other 90 percent below water to be conjured.” Certainly, there are some pieces of flash that take the iceberg approach to the extreme. However, there are other flash stories that feel complete in themselves; they tell an entire story, and the reader doesn’t feel compelled to fill in the white space, to piece together the larger narrative that the piece implies. In his own essay about flash, Dave Eggers recalls Lydia Davis telling him: “when she begins writing, she’s seeking to answer a question, and if it only takes one paragraph to answer that question, then it seems unnecessary to continue on and on for 8000 words.” For some writers, short shorts are whole, complete worlds. They are answers to questions, not hints at a larger story. For every writer, it seems, flash is an entirely different creature.

In an interview with The Believer, Lydia Davis says: “There is some acceptance of the terms flash fiction, sudden fiction, etc. But I think people may still be expecting a kind of miniature short story when they begin reading a piece of flash fiction, rather than the less usual offering that it might be—meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe—for which there is no good general name.”

So why even attempt to describe the way that flash fiction works? Because, fortunately, more and more people want to write it. What better way to learn than by looking at the techniques others have used?

In the next installment of this essay, I’ll discuss five techniques used in some of my favorite flash stories. It will by no means be an all-inclusive list, but rather a brief examination of how some writers concoct incredible stories in one thousand words or less.

by Sadye Teiser