Tag Archive | "fiction"

The Three Trick

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The Three Trick


crossroadsPerfectionism plague you? Or just indecision? In fiction or even in non-fiction narrative (e.g. memoir), there are so many choices, possibilities limited only by imagination (for fiction) and memory/ your druthers (for non) . . . Where to start? Where to end? What to include? What to make happen? How to introduce your characters? How to paint your setting?

Drafting will, you think, nail down your story. But revision forces a new vision, and again, all doors open, all worlds beckon.

You’d think that if the problem were an embarrassment of riches, the answer would be discipline, restriction. But no. The answer is to write more. Sigh. Isn’t that always the answer?

Seriously, though: if you are trying to figure something out about your book, instead of struggling and reaching for the right, the best, answer, come up with a list. Three possible endings. Seven ways to up the stakes. Five ways to turn the scene. Sometimes, you’ll find a way to use more than one, and sometimes you’ll find your way to the one that excites and moves you. But you won’t be stuck anymore. And chances are, you’ll loosen up and arrive at options you would not otherwise have considered.

This is how we move from trying to get it right to getting it written!

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Busy Making Other Plans: What Failed Dreams, Missed Opportunities and Narrow Misses Can Teach Us About Fiction, and Visa Versa


I’ll admit it. One of the things I love about Facebook is that it gives me the impression of being in contact with so many people from all phases of my life–elementary school classmates, lost friends from high school, college comrades who fought the good fight alongside me or worked at the Kresge Food Co-op with me or studied women with me (in class, you know), exes and colleagues and acquaintances and friends of friends all jumbled together on my home page. Warm. Cozy. Seriously, though, I love the crowd.

Plus, I imagined I would always know these people all my life. Even the kids in school who teased me or the housemate of a boyfriend who annoyed me–I just thought the world was a lot smaller than it is. Or was–before Facebook.

Still, getting the occasional or regular status updates is not the same as curling up on the couch for hours of talk, hot drinks in hand. It is not the same as taking over the highway together in our determination to stop the war. It is a lot shorter than a three-hour-long consensus meeting to decide what brand of toilet paper to use. Less detailed than surviving third grade side-by-side. More succinct than wandering the city in the middle of the night with feather boas askew.

I just thought I’d have enough time to live the thousands of lives each connection and context promised. And I don’t. “Life is what is happening while you are busy making other plans,” is the line that has been attributed to John Lennon, though it’s uncertain he said exactly that. In any case, while I love the life I turn out to have, it is just the one life and necessarily excludes the hundreds, nay thousands of others that lived as close to the surface of possibility at one time or another.

This is where fiction comes in. The art of imagining other lives is nurtured in us, the more so now that we have so many opportunities (the good and the bad) that we have to pass some by. I don’t know about you, but I am constantly carrying on little imagined conversations in my head–with the cop I fear will stop me and whom I am, before he exists, assuring misunderstood the situation because I would never merely slow at a stop sign or speed to make a light; with the jerk from high school whom, I’ve learned, lives very near where I buy my vegetables; with the person who assumed I had no artistic role to play in making our film because I was looking after the children. Those are the defensive or vengeful fantasies, but of course there are lovelier ones.

There are fan letters I write in my head but never send. I’ve been doing that since I was a child. Now there are blogs I imagine but don’t get down on the screen before life rushes in and demands my attention. There are futures I imagine, multiple, irreconcilable futures. There are worries and fears, the scenarios I concoct when someone is very late and can’t be reached by phone.

The reason there are meditation practices and self-help books to try to pin us to the moment, to reality, is that all of us, I venture, are close to spinning off into the fabricated possibilities we conjure at each juncture. What if? What might . . . ? It could have been . . .

That’s the business of fiction–to explore the truth of what doesn’t happen.

When I was in high school, I used sometimes to imagine that I was somebody else who had been transported into my life and my body and was getting to experience this entirely other, different life and perspective. In reality, I was ten years younger than my next sibling, and lived alone with my mother. I longed for a big family. In my fantasy, I would imagine that I was a kid with seven brothers and sisters who was getting to experience, for the first time, having my own room and no other kids around. It’s a little twisted, I know. But it’s a good training for a fiction writer. We are all tangled up with each other, are each other’s might have beens and could have happeneds.

Want to live a thousand lives? Wonder what it would be like to be him . . . or her . . . ? Write it and see.

As the New Year approaches, and we all begin to make resolutions and create–in our minds–a life in which we eat perfectly or exercise daily or read as much as Junot Diaz or write as much as Joyce Carol Oates, remember that you are using right in those moments a powerful muscle that may not create changes in your life, but which can create worlds on the page: your imagination. And even if you don’t make it to the gym on Jan. 1, you could probably make it to the laptop, which unlike the exercycle can be dragged into bed.

When someone catches you staring off into space, rehearsing a conversation, playing a small smile across your face, you can just tell them, “I was practicing writing fiction.”

Next step? Get those fantasies onto the page.

Happy New Year! Come join my online Building Your Book course, starting Jan. 15, or sign up for my monthly newsletter for writing tips and discounts on classes. http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses


Posted in Imagination, Mastery, MomentumComments (4)

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What No One Tells You About Point of View: Part 1, A Primer


A student writes:

I would like you to talk about point of view – even something as simple as an enumeration of the possibilities. I told my story from the point of view of an omniscient third person who knew the thoughts of the main character but of no one else. This was inconvenient at one point because I envisioned a chapter where [his] love interest goes off with [his] mother [for a scene]. I couldn’t do that directly because the storyteller only knew what was going on through the main character’s eyes. Did I make a mistake? Can an omniscient storyteller know everything? That was about the only place I needed that extra knowledge for the storyteller.

Part One of my three-part reply:

Usually, when people talk about point of view, they concentrate on the technicalities. Let’s get the technicalities out of the way.

Generally, the point of view can either be

* first person (“I walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed me five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) First person can be singular, as shown in example, or collective, as when a town or a family or some other group entity narrates, using “we.” This tends toward a more omniscient role, as the storytellers are often part of the setting more than they are the main character. First person singular need not be a main character, either. Madame Bovary is written in first person from the point of view of a classmate of M. Bovary who shows up briefly in one early pronoun and not much more if at all . . .

* second person (“You walk down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owes you five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”) Note verb tense change. Second person is a bit of a stylistic tic and tends to come in present tense, perhaps to give the impression of hypnotising the reader.

* third person (“She walked down Salamander Street, hoping to see Charlotte, who owed her five-hundred dollars and an ex-husband.”)

Third person can be “close” or “omniscient”:

* A close third operates from inside the head of one character, or follows that one character and dips in and out of his or her head. It is similar to first person, except for the pronoun choices.

* An omniscient third is the God point-of-view. Your narrator can see all; however, this does not mean that your narrator tells all. An omniscient narrator hopping from head to head can be as dizzying and unappealing as a 1970s hippie doing the same from bed to bed. Omniscience is about control, about that bird’s eye perspective that can zoom in, sometimes here, sometimes there, but thoughtfully, craftfully. No zipping, no hopping.

The other technical point of view issue to keep in mind is distance in time between the moment of narration and the moment of the events of the story.

This is an issue in non-fiction, as well, especially in memoir. The writer is obviously going to write in first person–or perhaps I should say, likely going to unless serious experimentation is taking place, whether legitimate–The Autobiography of Miss Alice B. Toklas–or illegitimate–A Million Little Pieces. However, a narrator looking back across a span of fifty years has a different first person point-of-view than one writing as if just upon the heels of the events. Either narrator will zoom in on the events to give the reader a sense of immediacy–we don’t want every moment moderated by that fifty-year perspective–but the first narrator can draw back and reflect, while the second keeps us close to the bone of the story.

Naturally, in any point of view, the distance in time will impact the perspective such that one could argue that the narrator is a different person at one age than at another.

That’s about what you will get in a standard creative writing course. Maybe less.

But I am going to tell you what no one tells you about point of view.

Point of view is story. It is plot, voice and therefore language, character, dialog, setting, the whole caboodle. It could be said that all of these elements of narrative are doors into the same large, labyrinthine room, but that does not mean that the interconnections are not fruitfully searched.

These elements will be explored in parts 2 & 3 of this post.

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On Being Anything: Chris Rock, Borges, and Raising White Boys


Last night we watched part of the new Chris Rock comedy special. Let me say, first of all, that the man is funny as heck. We were laughing hard. He had a lot to say about Obama that was not only funny but astute and telling. He’s also smart–he can read the audience and respond to that “uh-oh” feeling that comes from listening to edgy humor that takes no prisoners.

Angie and I were talking this morning about the part where Chris Rock said that if Obama were president, Black people could stop giving their kids the “you can be anything you want to be” speech every morning before they leave the house. He said, White people don’t give their kids that speech, because it’s obvious. This led Angie and me to discuss (not for the first time) the fact that we are raising two little white boys. They could be president, even in the old days (and let’s hope they are nearly over) when only little white boys could grow up to be president. Then we talked about whether having two lesbian moms would be enough of a handicap to prevent them from being president, and whether Clinton’s (Bill, that is) single mom and alcoholic step-dad were equivalent to having lesbian mothers. I said no; Angie said yes.

This is what we do with our free time while the boys are with their babysitter.

Then we go to the library, sit at the long wooden tables, and get to work. Around us, the economy is tanking, and taking us with it for the ride, I suppose, but we are all paid up on our library fines and have a clean slate when it comes to borrowing all the wealth in this bank of books. Wee-ha!

Just for the record, my mother did give me that speech, since I was a little white (half-Jewish) kid, but also a girl, and it wasn’t so obvious that I could be anything I wanted to be. Except as a reader.

Yeah–there’s the tie in to fiction: the gateway to success for those not wedded too closely to reality. Funnily enough, this is also exactly what most people–interviewers, say, or even readers–refuse to understand fully about writing fiction: characters can be invented out of the thick swirl of internal and external experience, out of the “what if” musings that run rampant in junior high kids like I was, for example, out of that feeling that who you actually are is a quirky twist of fate rather than a destiny, that you might as easily have arrived over there, in that body, in that life.

There but for fortune, we say, but is the fortune always good? I guess this is another confession: every time I hear a piece of someone else’s life, I zip into it and feel around for the fit. I overhear someone say that she’d finished her dissertation after twelve years. First thought: I should get a PhD. Someone writes to me from Kansas City with a look at living in a place that doesn’t value questioning over hierarchy as he feels the Bay Area does, but in an aside he mentions the lower cost of living. First thought: We could buy a house in Kansas City.

In life, I’m a bit of a push-over, then; indecisive and open to all manner of possibilities. My therapist seems to think (it’s hard to be sure between his nodding and questions and my own projections) that this has to do with my fear of committing to one life trajectory, since a single trajectory inevitably ends. Whereas Zeno’s paradox assures us that if we are jumping point to point, halfway to halfway to halfway again, we will never reach the end. In life, this is kind of weak, I suppose. But for the fiction writer, this same waffling, wafting search is like pumping iron for the imagination. I. Could. Be. Anything.

Sure, I can’t be everything. In life, I may only be able to be a handful of things (and some people might succeed in amending the constitution of the state just to prevent one of those things, so Vote No on Prop. 8). But there are lives ahead of me as a writer.

Borges said it better in “Everything and Nothing,” a piece out of Labyrinths which my father read aloud to me one day in what was then his living room and is now mine (speaking of changes . . .). My father had this sonorous voice, hushed in reverence to its own power, and when he read this I felt deeply understood. Which is not to compare myself to Shakespeare or Borges, but only to toss my headpiece in with the rest of the writers, to say, I live by my greatest weakness, which is that I cannot pick one life for good.


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Secrets, Paranoia and Babysitting


In my post, “I Could Write a Great Novel If Only I Had a Story to Tell,” I neglected my own favorite kind of plot trigger: secrets. It’s funny, but writers do seem to revisit a certain theme. Michelle Richmond (at least in her last two gripping books) seems to write about the consequences of losing people for the people who feel responsible for their loss. In The Year of Fog, the young step-daughter-to-be is lost by the fiancée when she disappears from Ocean Beach while they are together. In No One You Know, the sister of a young woman who was murdered years before searches for answers about what happened that night, spurred on by a meeting with the man who was the sister’s lover, another character caught in the ramifications of loss.

My own work tends to gravitate toward secrets–what we don’t know that we don’t know. I am gripped by the idea that something there, but hidden, unknown, has a strong impact–even on the ignorant participants in the situation. In Shy Girl, Shy Mallon’s mother has hidden her identity as a Jew and her past as a holocaust survivor. Lots of people doubted the veracity of this story when I began to write it, because of course we hear from the people who are not hiding, those who believe that remembering is our only hope, our strongest activism. But in fact, there are many secret histories like Mrs. Mallon’s. Survivors who learned a different lesson: that safety lies in remaining below the radar, out of view.

My own father told me about coming to Berkeley (U.C.) at the behest of a friend and colleague. Ten years later, they each “confessed” to each other that they were Jewish. Each of my father’s first two wives (neither is my mother) claimed that my father didn’t tell them he was Jewish before they were married. This meant that he did not bring them to meet his parents. I asked him about this once and he said, “I didn’t want to give my father a heart attack.” When I was officially converted to Judaism, the Rabbi took my parents and my father’s Jewish fiancée (whom he never did marry) and me into a little office before the Mikvah and said, “Your mother is not Jewish. Today we are going to remedy that mistake.” I only nodded, but I knew it was no mistake.

Years later, when I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, I finally understood my father in a new way. I wrote a piece called Portnoy’s Daughters, about my sisters and me. The point is, something that is hidden has an impact even if the situation looks the same as one in which that something isn’t there at all.

In any case, secrets are a good spur toward plot. What are the open secrets in your family? What about the ones you wonder about but for which you have no answers? What secrets have you been told or stumbled upon by accident? What secrets do you hold that no one else knows but you?

This week, we had a trial run with a babysitter for our boys. You see, other grandparents, a very busy but loving aunt and uncle, and a cousin who’s left the state for college, we have not really left the boys with anybody. For seventeen months. Now that Angie is my technical person and business advisor as well as my co-parent, it’s gotten completely crazy around here. So we are checking out having the boys go play, for three mornings a week, with a woman in the neighborhood and her eighteen-month-old little girl.

The woman is very nice and calm, an obviously loving mother. We visited with her in her house for a couple hours, met her husband, talked to a friend and neighbor of hers. All that. She’s in graduate school getting her doctoral degree in Psychology.

So then we made a plan to meet at a little Tot Lot near the Albany YMCA, and we all hung out for a while there before she took our boys and her daughter off to baby gym at the Y. As we stood watching her walk away, pushing the boys in their double stroller, her daughter strapped to her back, I thought . . .

What if the whole thing was a set-up? What if the friend she called and the man claiming to be her husband (who was obviously the father of her baby, but I didn’t think like that in this moment) and this nice-seeming woman were all part of some baby-trafficking ring, and the whole rigmarole was an elaborate set-up?

At the end of the morning, we met up again at the Tot Lot. The boys were happy and worn-out from playing. They were yards further down the potty-training line simply from watching her daughter use the potty regularly, and I had worked on my NaNoWriMo book pitch (for the class I am teaching).

But I realized that I am fully capable of concocting the most complicated plots, accounting for all the elements of reality that add up to something normal, ordinary, and making them align into something overblown, terrifying and, well, gripping . . .

One of my very talented clients told me about meeting a woman who had just come back from Africa. The woman began talking about her trip, and my client was not all that intrigued, but then it turned out that their luggage had been lost and they had to go into deepest Africa with only the barest, most inappropriate clothing, and then . . . I don’t remember the story now, but the point was that hearing a story without a plot is like watching someone’s slideshow about their vacation, replete with their commentary: “Oh, oh, that was the tour guide and right over there is the hut we stayed in, just behind that tree . . . ” Now, if the photographer is amazing . . . you might enjoy the show. Otherwise, you’re going to be hungry for story–happy when things start to go wrong for the erstwhile travelers. And if the photographer is amazing and there’s a story–you’re just where you want to be.

So tap into your own paranoia and build yourself a really great plot. Think about your “what if . . . ?” scenarios when the stakes are as high as they can be.

Here’s why:

Fiction is a training camp for those of us who are engaged in the risky business of life. It’s where we learn about relationships, meaning, and how to survive the worst and keep going. When my father was dying, I read Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. I’d heard about it before, but I’d been a little turned off by the grim opening situation: the main character’s boyfriend dives off a pier and breaks his neck, becoming paralyzed from the neck down (as I recall). But now, surrounded as I was by hospital routine and near-death calls, the book didn’t seem depressing to me. Like a hand reaching through the darkness, it showed me the way to stumble along. If Packer had decided that it was too traumatic to have someone get that seriously hurt (especially when his girlfriend was already unhappy and wanting to leave their long relationship, despite being engaged), the book might have been about a group of friends who enjoy a yearly picnic by a lake. But it wouldn’t have been published, and it wouldn’t have had anything to offer to me as I commuted to the place where my father lay trying not to die.

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