The Calculus of a Great Sentence

HATE the idea that there is some formula that will yield a great story. Sure, there are blueprints out there that will allow you to make a story. And, depending on your talent with the actual language, it may even be a pretty good story. But the idea that there is some “great story” rubric out there, in the ether? Well, that whole thing pisses me off mightily. And not because it systematizes art in a distinctly capitalist mode, but because that stupid idea crushes so many would-be writers who spend days/months/years comparing themselves to Checkov/O’Connor/Saunders and feel they just can’t ever “get it right.”

So say it with me: There is no magical “right way” to write a story.

However, there is a right way to write each story.

Confusing? Yep.

But it’s true. Each individual story creates its own “rules” in collaboration with the individual writer working on it. In other words, if you and I were to write the “same” story, each of us would discover our own “right way” to tell it through our personal engagement with the work itself. In the writing, you unconsciously set up and agree to certain rules that come from your own reaction to the material you are discovering. And it’s a real chicken-and-the-egg kinda’ thing, where what you discover leads you to make choices about rules that lead you to more discovery that may lead to altering the rules and so on.

Let me offer a micro-example of this kind of “formula” on the page, and maybe it will make more sense. I’m currently reading Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Early in the book, during Anna’s visit with the Styles children, this sentence appears:

Beyond the windows of an adjacent front room, the sea tingled under a
thin winter sun(p. 5)

By itself, it isn’t a stunning sentence. It’s pretty, sure, and clear in its image, but something about it rang in my brain. After thinking about it for far too long, I realized that it was the word “adjacent,” a bummer of a word if ever there was one. We say that specificity in writing is important, but I think what we really mean is clarity. “Adjacent” is an extremely specific word, but it takes a LOT of work to make it sexy. Even with its fun D-into-J sound, you’d have to work your writing magic to make “adjacent” the centerpiece of a sentence.

So why does Egan, who knows her way around language, use “adjacent” here? The answer, I think, lies in the second half of the sentence.

“…the sea tingled under a thin winter sun.” Now, let’s give credit where credit is due. If “adjacent” is a dud, the back half of the sentence does all kinds of awesome things sonically. Sea and sun give you those sibilants at the beginning and end of the phrase, anchoring you. Tingled, thin, and winter have that -in- sound, and tingled and winter also give you the hard T sound. Under and sun rock the -un-. There’s even the -th- repetition in the and thin. It’s a compact little nugget of sonic joy that really hinges on the creative use of “tingled” as a reaction of the sea to the sun.

And it’s almost too much. Even divorced from the language around it, it’s jam-packed with intention. When you take it in context, it sticks out like a sore thumb: There is little else in the first few pages that reaches for that kind of sound/image.

So, Egan applies a little “adjacent” beforehand in order to soften the impact of that final phrase. I’d argue that “Beyond” has a similar effect to “adjacent” without being quite as awkward, creating a cumulative effect in the first half of the sentence that at once both diminishes and heightens the second half. It lowers the reader’s expectations so that the musicality of the back half is a pleasant surprise, not at all over the top.

So what does this little gem of a sentence have to do with the idea of making our own rules as we go? Well, there were approximately one million and forty-thousand ways (± 1,040,000) Egan could have pulled off this same sentence. However, from inside the work itself, through her engagement with both what she had already written and what she intended to write, she settled on this approach. She created her own math, the calculus of a great sentence for this passage, this chapter, this section, this book, etc.

Egan’s math may not work for you. It may do the trick nicely. It may simply suggest some ways your own calculus can and will shake out. But, remember, fellow writer, that her way is only the right way for her while writing this particular story. She may never use this particular math equation again. Just like you and me, she may well have to discover all-new math, exciting formulas, and ridiculous tricks the next time she sets out to write.

Paying attention to your process is almost as important, early in a work, as paying attention to the words on the page. It is through this attention to our own engagement with the story we’re telling that these rules are revealed/created.

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Where Are Your Feet Planted?

I once got into a fairly heated argument with my friend David (well, we’ve had many heated arguments, if I’m being honest). We were on the crowded porch of the dorm during one of our Residencies for grad school, so the topic was, of course, writing (as have been all the others). David had recently, if not that very day, had his story workshopped and, in discussing the experience, said that he was willing to change any- and everything about his story “to make it better.” I called him on that—surely there had to be something that he wouldn’t be willing to change, some element, maybe tiny, maybe teeny-tiny, but something.

He stuck to his guns, adding literally to his statement. He was willing to change literally any- and everything about his story.

I still, to this day, think he was lying. To me, certainly, but also to himself. Because, if you are truly willing to change any- and everything about your story, from POV to plot to character to any given minute detail, well, then why the eff are you writing the story in the first place? And how can you judge whether any given change will make the story “better” if you have no allegiance to anything the story contains?

The answer to the first question relies on the answer to the second. The only way to make something “better” when you have no internal consistency is to compare it to some outside benchmark. For our purposes, that means that you must believe that there is a quantifiable, objective standard for “good story” and that it is possible to measure any given story against that benchmark and receive usable results.

This, of course, is insane. But, for the sake of argument, if such a quantifiable, objective standard exists, then you would be totally justified in having “meet-or-exceed” as your goal for writing.

If it doesn’t exist (it doesn’t), then you need to define your “goal” in writing any given story. If it’s “to make money” or simply “to get published,” well, then, you can certainly manufacture your own “quantifiable standard” by comparing your story to stories which have achieved your specific goal. It won’t really be an objective standard, due to the subjective vagaries of editorial interpretation/enjoyment/aggravation with the world that affects the editor’s perception of your work, but you can build yourself some guidelines and try to build something within those guidelines that is entirely mutable.

If your “goal” boils down to something closer to “to tell this particular story,” well, now you’re capable of putting together a quantifiable, objective standard from inside the work. You are addressing, in other words, the bedrock of the story, the place where your feet are planted as you leverage every craft tool at your disposal in order to create your story. So, it stands to reason, that figuring out pretty quickly where, exactly, you are planting your feet would be real helpful in writing a “good” story.

Let’s, by way of a fer instance, take a look at the short story I’ve been working on recently. It started when a sentence popped into my head, unbidden: Shoshanna looks like a big old dipshit when she flies. Now, I’m definitely never going to change the fact that Shoshanna can fly—and trust me, someone will suggest it because, “Um, people can’t fly and what are you writing, fantasy? Cut it. Make it, like, driving or something.” But see, I have this recurring dream where I can fly EXCEPT I have to flail my arms and legs in order to do it. Once I get up high enough, I can glide smoothly for a bit, but eventually I have to start with the flailing again. So obviously, this idea is important to me and demands I write a story. So, there: flying is staying in.

Now, on to the less obvious things. First off, that phrase “big old dipshit” is important. It came to me as a part of the original sentence and when I first typed it out, those words felt like they were in neon lights. To me, the phrase implies a voice, a perspective. It brings with it an attitude, not just toward the characters or the events, but toward the whole enterprise of telling this story. It’s important here to note that what’s “important” to a story at this, the drafting stage, is very personal. You may not think that the phrase “big old dipshit” implies or brings with it any of the things that I associate with it. And that’s fine because, honestly, it doesn’t matter what anyone other than the writer thinks at this point. If something speaks to the author, it speaks to them, it inspires them, and it is useful to them. So that phrase, and all it brings with it, stays, no matter what.

Next is the name Shoshanna. It’s a loaded name. It’s a female name. It’s a Hebrew name. I am neither a woman nor Jewish. However, it feels important to me that the character be both those things. The name was just there in that first flash of inspiration. So, no matter what, I’m sticking with Shoshanna. I’m not going to change her into a straight, white, recovering-Christian male because that would be easier for me to “inhabit” or any of the crap. Shoshanna came with the inspiration, she stays.

Now, past those three little things: flying, “big old dipshit,” and Shoshanna, anything else I come up with will be flexible. But those three things, those are the things with which I will begin to build my quantifiable, objective standard. Right now, if my story serves those three elements, then it is working well. There have been elements added to this list as I’ve worked (Shoshanna discovered her ability to fly during a suicide attempt; Shoshanna’s father can fly, too, but has never told her and doesn’t come clean when she tells him what she can do—secrets are important and these specific ones won’t budge) and more may be added, so the standard will change accordingly.

However, knowing “where your feet are planted” can do WAY more than just let you judge the “quality” of your story. These elements are signposts, they are a map for the story. When you get stuck or lost, just make a big choice that relates to one or more of these elements and you will be assured that you are moving the story you want to tell along. These elements are touchstones to keep you on track and to give you a place form which to leap.

Doing the work of discovering where your feet are planted in any given story will also be of great use during revision. By the time you reach the end of your first draft, you’ll have a list of the elements that are most important—it may be only the list you started with or maybe you’ll have added things as you wrote. These elements can help you decide where to expand, where to cut, where to change, and where to double down on what you’ve already done. As long as you keep these elements in mind and aim to make the choices that most support, highlight, and explore them, you’ll be making the “right” choices. And, since the “importance” of those elements is so personal, what is “right” will also be personal, so you’ll be serving your initial impulses, that spark of original inspiration, the story you wanted to tell all along.

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Boredom Is Part of the Process

A friend recently posted a question to the Facebook group dedicated to our MFA program. She was looking for guidance in the face of 20 or so unfinished stories, for advice on how to get herself to finally finish them.

Many-much good advice was given. One strand concerned the writer’s possible boredom with the stories and what that boredom might mean for their future. The suggestion was made and then echoed that perhaps the fact that she had become bored pointed to a “problem” with the content of the stories, an issue of their validity as projects to be continued. Maybe she had lost interest because they weren’t really what she should be writing. Boredom with a story is, in the estimation of several very smart people, fatal.

This line of thought set my Spider-Sense all a-tingle. It’s not to say that it couldn’t be true, but to have that option be anything other than the absolute last resort struck me as dangerous. Because, as the title of this post posits, I believe that boredom is a part of the process.

Boredom isn’t fatal—it’s normal. It’s a roadblock, for sure, but it isn’t fatal. Every story I’ve ever written, I’ve written 1/3 to 1/2 of it, then got bored and left it—sometimes for a week, sometimes for years. But I have, to this point, always come back and written to something like an ending. And then I’ve gone back in and fixed the beginning to better match the ending. And then I’ve  massaged/tinkered with/rewritten the middle to fit everything together more smoothly. And then I’ve tweaked the ending to cap off the new beginning and middle. And then I’ve gotten bored and walked away again. And eventually I’ve come back again and really finished the thing once the full shape of it is out in the open.

Our brains are pattern recognition machines. Story is pattern fulfillment and denial. We talk about theme or voice or plot or arc or… and what we really mean is the indiscernible “thing” that holds a work together. That thing is, at its heart, pattern. We may think of that pattern in terms of arc or plot or voice or theme, that may be our conscious entry point into the pattern, but it’s bigger than that. It can be a complex, goofy, labyrinthine thing, but it comes from the basic idea of your story (what you know about it; where your “feet are planted,” the elements that you can’t change without no longer writing the story you set out to write, which will be a blog topic soon) being the filter through which every observation and choice you make about the work passes.

I firmly believe that boredom is simply the point when a pattern becomes too familiar. So sometimes, the simple passage of time is the answer—get far enough away and the pattern becomes fresh. Take a step back and when you return, you’ll be delighted by the pattern you’ve forgotten about and want to keep playing inside it, following it, disrupting it, altering it.

However, you can import an idea from improv comedy (because when do I ever not try to import an idea from improv into everything I do?) in order to maybe force the issue—make the bold choice. “Today is the day!” is a common refrain in improv classes: the day they finally have that tough conversation, the day they actually do hook up, the day the dog really does get put down. Make the bold choice and, I promise, it will reignite your interest because the bold choice almost always disrupts/alters the pattern (which is awesome, because it, in effect, establishes a new pattern which encompasses the old one and provides the beginnings of the old “surprising but inevitable” thing we’re told is so important in endings). This alteration/disruption should make the pattern newly strange, even to you. And strangeness & wonder are what we’re chasing, whether we know it or not.

This does NOT mean you should make an “unmoored” choice. Don’t just decide to stick a vampire in the middle of a story. Instead, re-read what you have and then think, “What is the biggest, strangest, boldest choice I can make RIGHT NOW?” And commit to the choice. Commit to it, because it came from your story brain. Your brain is the only place the world of your story exists and therefore, in my humble opinion, it is vitally important to trust any decisions that come from that same place (consciously or subconsciously or even unconsciously). Trust those choices until they have absolutely proven themselves to be bad choices. And then trust them further, because usually its better to alter things so the choices work than to make different choices.

Take all this with, of course, a comically oversized grain of salt. It may not work for you at all.

But I bet a bazillion dollars it will.

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Genre: A Screed (Or “You Got Superheroes in My Cancer Memoir!”)

Genre, man. What a total fucking bummer.

And I’m not talking about Sci-Fi, Horror, Romance, Mystery.

I’m not even talking about those hybrid mofos, super-intense-niche-genres like High Sci-Fantasy Alt History, where TechnoMage Winston Churchill battles Scion of Cthulhu Adolf Hitler. (Note to self: write this.)

Nope, I mean Literary Fiction vs. Commercial Fiction. (I’m using Commercial Fiction here because the other, more prevalent term, Genre Fiction, makes the whole talking about genre thing confusing.)

Vampires aren’t Horror. Robots aren’t Science Fiction. Magic Swords aren’t Fantasy, gumshoes aren’t Mystery, and ripped bodices aren’t Romance. Commercial Fiction isn’t defined by its tropes, it is defined, I think, by its emphasis on plot.

Cancer, abusive parents, failed love, socio-political commentary, and/or beautifully, terribly, devastatingly sad and graphic sex scenes aren’t Literary Fiction. Again, tropes don’t define the thing. In Lit Fic’s case, I’d argue that the emphasis on prose does.

So, if we look at it this way, Plot vs. Prose, well, then, doesn’t that make things a whole lot freer and fun? Since we all know I hate rhetorical questions in writing, let me answer that for you: yes, it very much does.

I want to point out that I in NO WAY mean to imply that prose is inconsequential to Commercial Fiction writers or that plot ain’t on the radar of the Literary Fiction crowd. It isn’t a Boolean, On/Off, Yes/No, 00|01 thing. It’s a matter of degrees.

This has suddenly become very important to me, beyond my love of superheroes and monsters and spaceships, because I’m starting a new novel. And this one is going to have what would be referred to as “genre elements” in it. However, my drive isn’t plot. Hell, outside of some very broad strokes, I don’t know what the plot is going to be. But I know what the story is about and what it’s about, at least in part, is superheroes. What they mean to those of us who picked up Claremont’s X-MEN, Giffen/DeMatteis’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, or any other four-color wonder at a tender, formative age and, inside its pages found what we were looking for. It’s not “about” superheroes or comic books at all, really—it’s about stories, what good they are, can be, should be.

And I sincerely do NOT need to be wrestling with whether what I’m writing will be “accepted” as LitFic while I’m busy figuring out how, exactly, to bring the feel of comics to prose (it’s been done before but not by me and we can watch someone ride a bike but have no real idea how to do it ourselves). So, do yourself a favor: if you’re a LitFic reader, try some of the fringe stuff (Vandermeer’s BORNE, recently out from FSG, is a good start). If you’re a Commercial Fiction reader, try something from the same fringe (BORNE will trip your triggers, too). That way, when my book comes out (in, like, 40 years), you (or, I guess, your grandkids) will be ready to read it.

 

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Why? (or Some Thoughts on Rhetorical Questions in Fiction)

In manuscripts that I’ve been reading recently—workshop pieces, early drafts from friends, etc.—I’ve been noticing a LOT of rhetorical questions in the narration. Things like, “What would my sister think of me?” or “What could I possibly do?”

Now, sometimes rhetorical questions can be good: when the question itself is surprising (I didn’t think she’d care what her sister thought…) or…

Ok, that’s it. That’s the only case I can come up with in which rhetorical questions are good. Otherwise, they just pop me right out of the story. I was having trouble pinning down exactly why that is, though. Something one of my mentors, Fred Shafer, recently said helped me figure it out.

imagesWe’re reading Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House (which is great, BTDubs). At the end of Part One, there is this long passage of interiority where Peggy, the narrator, “decides” to finally love James. At one point, we get the following paragraph:

 

“I did not love him like a brother. I did not love him like a son. And though I loved him because of his body, it wasn’t his body that I loved, not the body of some manI dreamed would hold me, a body containing secrets that would somehow transform my own. Some will hear this and say, librarian, spinster: clearly there’s a block, clearly there are problems here. But I’ve thought about this enough, and I’ve dreamed of other men’s bodies that way, and I know the difference.” (pp 88-89)

 

This is a novel writing workshop and Fred’s point was how long passages like this are more or less necessary in novels, whether they are scenes or interiority or something else. In talking about how McCracken may have discovered such a passage, he pointed to the above paragraph and said that she hadn’t settled for the question from Peggy, “How will I love him?” That question would be fitting for her to ask—she is a woman in her early 30s, James is a teenage boy afflicted with gigantism. However, Fred pointed out that sustaining a passage like this is a matter of taking those kinds of questions and not just posing them to your character(s) but forcing them to answer, to answer and answer until you hit the truth. And yes, in some cases, you may cut a lot of what you write and just keep that last nugget, the surprising truth, but sometimes the passage that you discover is something beautiful. He wanted us to see how to sustain these moments in order to make our novels more full.

But suddenly, I realized why I hate rhetorical questions in fiction so much: they are, at best, moments of missed opportunity; at worst, they are a neon sign pointing to the author’s fear. You are simply letting your character off the hook when you type one of those little suckers, relieving them of any responsibility to look deeper. If, instead, you pick that question up and stick in your character’s face, make them answer it, well, what treasures you might find. And how NOT BORED I, as a reader, will be.

Think of my first example: “What would my sister think of me?” Now, imagine plucking the question off the page and asking it directly of the character: “What would your sister think of you?”

She’d think I was terrible.

*BUZZ*

She’d think I was a lowlife, a liar, a cheat, a crook.

*BUZZ*

She’d think I wasn’t any better than our father.

*BU— “Wait, ok, why would she think that?”

Because he was a lowlife, a liar, a cheat, a crook.

*BUZZ*

Because she hated him.

*BUZZ*

Because we hadn’t seen him since the day he’d left three stacks of blood-stained bills on the kitchen table. His teeth were stained pink and when he kissed me on the forehead he left an imprint like mom used to, faint red lips. He hadn’t kissed Marcia, just took his hand off the bloody hole in his shirt and put the hand on her shoulder, squeezed briefly, ruined her dress.

Or, you know, something like that, something deeper, something important, something interesting and possibly new, a game-changer, that little whiff of mystery that can make your story so much more than it was.

This is a great revision exercise. Take that early draft and scour it for any rhetorical questions you may have left on the page. Open a new document and keep asking the question and follow-up questions and newly discovered questions until you find something or are sure you won’t. If you do find something, it may turn out to be just what the next draft needs.

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Sentences I Love #2

There are sentences I read that stop my heart. Used to be that’s as far as I got: “Damn, that’s a great sentence. Come on heart, get moving.” Since I’ve been studying writing, which means also practicing the art/skill of close reading, I’ve been able go a step further in my appreciation of these great sentences. So every once in a while I’m going to spend some time on the old blog looking at one of these little gems.

So, I’ve been considering writing a post about this particular sentence for quite some time. I’ve actually got a lot to say about it or, more precisely, about what else is going on before it that makes it such an effective sentence. I ran into it again just now and I’m finally gonna go for it.

First, the sentence:

“I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night.”

Nothing super-special about that sentence. It’s a funny understatement, perhaps, but nothing earth shaking is going on.

Now here’s why I hemmed and hawed over writing this:

The sentence isn’t from a story. It’s not even from a poem (well, not a printed poem, anyway). It’s a lyric from the song “You Were Cool” by The Mountain Goats. To be fair, I firmly believe that John Darnielle’s lyrics fall somewhere between story and poem and many of them should be recognized as literary achievements. Making it even more obscure, The Mountain Goats have never officially recorded the song—you can find many YouTube clips of live performances, but it doesn’t appear on any album. It’s hard to find and it isn’t encountered as a written sentence, so what’s it doing here, now?

In a number of the live performance videos, this line elicits a sincere cheer from the audience. The first time I heard it, I was filled with a righteous light and had to stop moving for a few seconds to come down (I was walking the dog at the time and had stumbled upon this unknown Mountain Goats’ song I just had to hear). I felt it, the crowds in many of the videos felt it, but what is “it?”

There is a lot going on lyrically in this song to grant such an innocuous sentence so much power, and looking at how Darnielle manages the build-up is, it turns out, highly instructive, so here we go…

(I’m going to collapse the various verses and choruses into sentences and paragraphs, doing away with the line breaks, in order to look at the individual sentences.)

The first sentence of the song is, “This is a song with the same four chords I use most of the time when I’ve got something on my mind and I don’t want to squander the moment trying to come up with a better way to say what I want to say.” It’s a long sentence, making up the entirety of the first verse. It is also metatextual, calling attention to the personal nature of the song—Darnielle is telling us something about himself, the songwriter. But what is [i]really[/i] interesting here is how the unadorned diction combined with the run-on quality of the syntax deny craft—this is an artless sentence. The first words we hear in this song are conversational, plain, and entirely without artifice (“squander” isn’t an exotic word for Darnielle). This sets up the rest of the song beautifully. Much like the opening of a “ghost story,” where the author needs to “make room” for the ghost to exist, this opening is making room for the conversational tone, the confessional feel of the rest of the song.

The next sentence is another long one and serves as the song’s chorus: “People were mean to you but I always thought you were cool, clicking down the concrete hallways in your spiked heels back in high school.” No metaphors, no similes, nothing. The use of the childish “mean” and “cool” though, enacts a form of mimesis—Darnielle is talking about high school, after all. The opening sentence makes this one seem more crafted, too, as is the intention.

The next sentence makes up the entire second verse, and this time Darnielle gets a little “flashy” with it: “It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side with our hearts still beating, having stared down demons, come back breathing.” There is tension in this sentence, between the clichés of “good to be young” and “let’s not kid ourselves,” and the staring down demons, the beating hearts and breathing. Even the phrase “pass through those years” seems more imagistic than anything that’s come before. This pivot reveals the depth of the emotion hiding underneath the plain-spoken recounting. Nothing that’s said here raises to the level of lyricism, but there is passion in this sentence that we haven’t seen yet.

The chorus reappears here, and this time, the same sentence takes on a different shade, as if Darnielle can’t believe the truth of the situation, that there has been injustice done.

The final verse breaks the established pattern of single long sentences:

You deserved better than you got, someone’s got to say it sometime because it’s true. People should have told you you were awesome instead of taking advantage of you. I hope you love your life now like I love mine. I hope the painful memories only flex their power over you a little of the time. We held on to hope of better days coming and when we did we were right. I hope the people who did you wrong have trouble sleeping at night.

The first two sentences are, again, cliché. “Awesome,” in it’s colloquial sense, operates like “mean” and “cool.” The third sentence is probably my second favorite because it is just doing so much work, altering the tone slightly, raising the quality of image, but also making sure we know this isn’t a love song—Darnielle is happy with his current life, a life without the person to whom he is writing. The fourth sentence has probably the strongest lyricism in the entire song, the idea of painful memories being able to flex their power. The fifth sentence comes back down to Earth a bit, although “of better days coming” is a slightly more difficult syntax than the average of the piece.

Then there, at the end of this final verse, is my sentence. By this point, the speaker is soaked in a combination of righteous anger and frustrated helplessness, passionately sorry for what happened “back in high school” but limited in his expression, in his actual ability to do anything. He can’t place a pox on the houses of the oppressors or curse their lineages or anything so grandiose. The best he can do is to hope they don’t sleep well because of what they’ve done, that guilt taints their rest (but doesn’t even do away with it completely, just makes it less comfy). There is a reality at work in the sentence, a feeling of absolute moral certitude (what, exactly, these people did is unclear, and therefore a more severe punishment may not even be advisable).

By building up this muted, plain-spoken sense of injustice, Darnielle imbues the final sentence with as much power as a different song that may have ended with “I hope they fucking die” or some other expletive-filled zinger. By managing the syntax and diction to show restraint and/or an inability to articulate rage, the final line feels like catharsis.

(The chorus makes one last appearance, playing the song out, and in performance, the energy is that of an anthem, a strident call to action.)

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Pics or It Didn’t Happen

(A couple days ago, the Jersey Devil was all over my social media feed due to some blurry “sighting” photo being shared. I wrote this in response.)

My iPhone wakes me, my Twitter blowing up, dingdingdinging, like the bell at the front of Charon’s stupid boat. I always hated that bell. And that guy, with his fraying robe and his damn skeleton hands. Anyway, I spread my wings and flap over to the banquette—I swear, these Thunderbolt cords are much shorter than the USBs that came with the iPhone 4—where I see a scroll of recent tweets concerning a sighting of the Jersey Devil.

I instinctively look around my domicile. The braided foliage covering the cave mouth is undisturbed, the only prints in the dirt of the floor are cloven-hooved, and the Sigil of Concealment etched into the stone of the celling is unmarred. I swipe on the most recent tweet, one that contains a bit.ly link that I assume is a picture of this sighting, then tap in my security code, 6… 6… 6…

6. Stupid four digit security codes ruining all my fun. Why can’t they offer you the option of different length security codes? Surely that would increase security, anyone trying to hack it or whatever having to know not only what digits you used but how many—

The picture pops up on the phone.

What the fuck?

What the actual fuck?

That is so obviously a stuffed llama with wings sewn on it that someone threw in the air or sailed on a wire or something.

It’s a retweet. It’s been retweeted 774, 987 times.

I look in the scratched, faded glass of the mirror above the banquette. What I see is in no way, shape, or form mistakable for a stuffed fucking llama with sewn on wings. I am a goat-headed monstrosity with a gaze that can peel the hope from a soul. I am Satan’s son, the beast that screams. I am terror incarnate.

I mean, look at these fucking wings. There are claws at the tips. I have wing claws. That’s it, I’m taking a fucking selfie. Right now. I’m not letting what happened to the Mothman happen to me. Fucking Richard Gere.

I dig through the pile of refuse next to the banquette, all the stuff I’ve accumulated from the remains of my meals. That one brunette girl, the one in the hockey jersey and black tights, she had one…

Ah, yes, here it is. I was starting to get worried I’d have to destroy another Amazon drone so I could get a selfie stick. But old Mother Leeds taught her darling boy that you never throw anything away that might end up useful. That’s why I still have her spleen. And her eyeballs. You never know.

Also, I’ve never been keen on eating eyeballs. Squishy. Yick.

I screw my iPhone to the end of the selfie stick then stand in front of the banquette, strike what I consider an ominous pose, and take the shot. It’s pretty good. My fangs are prominent, my wings horrifyingly translucent, and my eyes really pop. I mean, of course, the collection of uneaten eyeballs piled on the banquette—my eyes are startling pits of liquid black sin.

I start flipping through filters. While I’m a sucker for sepia, I think that’ll undercut the whole vibe, so I go with “hipster,” hit Share, and type “Hell is real! #JerseyDevil.” That should get ‘em.

It takes almost an hour for someone to retweet it. @OneInTheStink sends it out to his 842 followers.

@OneInTheStink: Ooooooo, spooky! What a joke! #JerseyNotvil

Hastag Jersey Notvil? Notvil? That’s not even a word! What does that even mean? Like I’m not the Jersey Devil, because I am. I’m the Jersey Devil. The terror that stalks in the night. The Demon Seed of Mother Leeds. This kid’s a d-bag.

The replies start almost immediately:

@SarahBoBarah: Look in the mirror, you can totes see the zipper! #JerseySadvil

@RedRightHand: Look at those little tyrannosaur arms! #JerseyDumbvil

@SaltyDog: Swipe left! #JerseyTindervil

@TinaSezHi: Wanna watch Hemlock Grove? #JerseyNetflixAndChillvil

@BobbyS: It’s like a goat fucked @TonyRocketCock’s mom! #JerseyMILFvil

@TonyRocketCock: At least my mom is getting laid. #JerseyNoDadvil

@BobbyS: Fuck you, @TonyRocketCock! #JerseyKickYourAssAfterGymvil

I throw my iPhone against the cave wall. It shatters into pieces and leaves a dent in the rock, I’m so superhumanly strong. I rear my head, open my throat, and let loose one of my patented shrieks. I’ve killed men just by screaming. And, like, cops and shit, not just the guys who come out here for a little rough trade.

Used to be people believed their eyes, believed the word of other people. The tales of my devilry spread far and wide with only a little evidence: a cloven hoofmark, a shock of hair whitened by my scream, the thick sibilance of wings. Now these pukes can’t even believe what they see with their own eyes!

That’s it. I’m going home. I lift the rusted iron ring in the floor, strain with all my considerable might, and the circular door begins to open. The smell of brimstone and sin rises, comforting me. The steps down are slick with the tears of the unjust. Before I descend them, I gather the spleen of Mother Leeds, her eyeballs, all the eyeballs from the banquette. As an afterthought, I grab the selfie stick—never know when it’ll come in handy, even in Hell—and I begin my winding way to a place that still makes sense to me.

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Sentences I Love #1

There are sentences I read that stop my heart. Used to be that’s as far as I got: “Damn, that’s a great sentence. Come on heart, get moving.” Since I’ve been studying writing, which means also practicing the art/skill of close reading, I’ve been able go a step further in my appreciation of these great sentences. So every once in a while I’m going to spend some time on the old blog looking at one of these little gems.

cover225x225This being the first Sentences I Love post, I thought I’d go with one from my favorite book, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It comes from near the end of “Chapter 4: Safari.”

In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance.

This sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph. Prior to the sentence, the reader is with Charlie, the “she” of the sentence, and her brother Rolph on a dance floor. After the sentence, Egan spins out into Charlie’s far future, charting the ramifications of Rolph’s suicide. This sentence, therefore, acts as the hinge on which Egan swings the reader into the future. Now, a lot of work has gone on earlier in the story in order to prepare the reader for this moment: the story opens with Rolph trying to get Charlie to remember a rainy night in Hawaii; there is a similar spin into the future early in the story concerning one of the warrior-dancers that comes to the camp Charlie and Rolph’s group is staying at; etc. All that prep work, though, can’t do the work this sentence needs to do. Those details and structural choices simply set the stage for this moment. This sentence is the moment.

I should also point out that this is the first mention of Rolph’s fate. There is no allusion to his suicide prior to this sentence. The stakes, in other words, are very high.

Let’s dive in. The opening of the sentence is elongated—the “In fact” at the start of the sentence isn’t necessary, but it slows the reader down. The same can be said for the adjective “particular.” The knee-jerk reaction in editing would be to strike these two as redundant. Of course the narrator is telling us a fact, that is her job, and “particular” slows the sentence without adding any crucial distinctions. Workshoppers would also be quick to strike one or the other of “again and again” or “for the rest of her life” for the same reason of redundancy. Yes, they both add shades of meaning, but one can be inferred from the other, so get that red pen out because these phrases are keeping the reader from the meat of the sentence.

And that is the point. Egan, and by implication Charlie, is trying to keep the reader from the revelation because it is painful. The effect is as haunting as it is technically wonky—all those extra beats give the reader the impression of hesitancy, which makes the revelation all the more powerful. Without them, the reader is left with “This memory is one she’ll return to for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight…” Without the extra padding, the suicide doesn’t come so much as revelation but as “Gotcha!”

For the same reason, Egan wisely pushes past the revelation, adding the a restatement of the memory Charlie will come back to, which also happens to be the moment of present time in the story, Charlie and Rolph on the dance floor. This circling back also cleverly prepares the reader for the movement into the future that the following sentences will make. By reframing the present time as a memory, Egan gently shifts the readers sense of time. And by carrying on past the revelation of the suicide and into an emotionally charged description of Rolph, emotions that come from Charlie, Egan engages the reader’s emotions in a way that the simple “Gotcha!” of ending after “twenty-eight” wouldn’t.

To be absolutely clear, I am NOT claiming that Egan had all of this consciously mind as she wrote. She may have, of course, but it is just as likely that, through her engagement and dedication to the work, to telling the story, this version of the sentence simply felt the most “right,” and that feeling comes from the reasons that I’ve pointed out. This is, I think, I big stumbling block in the teaching of writing—a lot of writing teachers present this kind of craft analysis without any kind of caveat and that can make the writing a student studies seem unattainable. “I’m supposed to think about all that while also figuring out where my story is going and who my characters are and.. GAH!” Instead, think of this kind of analysis as something an author put thought into during revision, a noticing and strengthening of what is already natural occurring in the work. Chances are Egan herself has never thought about this sentence in quite these terms (again, she may have). Looking at how a sentence or a paragraph or a whole story or novel works is still a useful tool and will, hopefully, help you (and me) write more thoughtfully and deliberately.

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Here Comes the Helicarrier: On Satisfying Chessiness and Cheesy Satisfaction

Unsurprisingly, I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron at 11pm on the Thursday before opening (the first “midnight” screening at our local theater was at 7pm—this irritated me until I attended my first post-40 late-night opening [which will also be my last because I am too old to be driving home at 3am] but now the idea makes me very happy). Also unsurprisingly, I loved it. Yes, there are problematic things but there is also a lot to love—the one-liners, the cameos and easter eggs, Wanda’s creepy finger movements.

One of the things that struck me most, though, comes near the climax of the film. Our heroes are stuck, along with a group of innocent civilians, on a chunk of city rising into the sky so that it can plummet back to Earth and set off an extinction-level event akin to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Captain America, his jaw never squarer, says he won’t leave the city with anyone else on it. Black Widow asks, “Who said anything about leaving?” They can stop the plan but they and everyone on the island will die saving millions of lives below them. “It’s not so bad,” she says, chinning at the clouds floating just past the edge of the chunk, “where else am I gonna get this view?”

Then comes the sound of crackling static and Nick Fury buzzes over the teams’ comms and, viola, the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier rises through the clouds, signaling salvation as only a deus ex machina can.

And I was thrilled. The overhead shot of clouds shifting over the deck of the carrier, the sound of its turbines… It was a great moment.

And entirely, utterly cheesy.

Recently, I attended an interview and Q&A with the insanely talented Yiyun Li. In the course of the interview, she brought up the idea of “cheesiness,” particularly how she worries about sentences and sequences in her stories being cheesy. She gave no definition of cheesy, but everyone in the room knew what she meant.

As an example of this worry, she pointed out the last lines from her short story “After a Life” (from the remarkable collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers):

Her husband comes close and strokes her hair, gray and thin now, but his touch, gentle and timid, is the same one from a lifetime ago, when they were children playing in their grandparents’ garden, where the pomegranate blossoms, fire-hued and in the shape of bells, kept the bees busy and happy.

Yiyun Li read this phenomenal sentence, a beautiful time capsule of two lives, and then asked, sincerely, “Is that cheesy?”

Almost everyone in the room made sounds indicating that no, it was not cheesy. I say almost because, in that moment, reading the line decontextualized, I realized that, uh, yeah, it is a little cheesy. It is exactly the kind of line one expects to cap a story by an author that is a favorite of The New Yorker and wins all sorts of awards: it is a lyrically presented image that smacks of symbolism. The line, beautifully written as it is, feels like a parody of the literary fiction ending.

Why then, does it feel so absolutely right?

“After a Life” is the story of Mrs. and Mr. Su, an old married couple with a severely handicapped daughter, Beibei. They have, over the years, cut themselves off from (or, in the case of their younger child, a son, been abandoned by) friends and family as they care for their daughter while keeping her a secret. Recently, Mr. Su has made a friend, Mr. Fong, a man cheating on his recently-released-from-prison wife. Mrs. Fong has begun a friendship of sorts with Mrs. Su since her return from prison, calling every day to complain about Mr. Fong and the affair she is sure he is having and that Mr. Su is covering for (in truth, both Mr. and Mrs. Su are covering for Mr. Fong). As Mr. Su goes about his day at the stockbrokerage and Mrs. Su takes care of Beibei, the facts are slowly revealed: Mr. and Mrs. Su are first cousins, were counseled against having a child when they ignored their family and married, and have lived with the consequences ever since.

It isn’t Beibei’s condition that’s eroded their marriage, though. If anything, Mr. Su believes it was the birth of their son, Jian, a healthy and bright child who is now away at college. Mrs. Su worries that Mr. Su wants a more “normal” family and Mr. Su worries that Mrs. Su has come to feel only the unhappiness of her situation with Beibei.

In the end, Beibei passes away (possibly due to an overdose of sleeping pills Mrs. Su gave her), and, as they realize what happens, the story closes with the line above. The description of Mrs. Su’s hair, gray and thin, is the present, the image of the flowers and the bees, is the past filled with life and hope, and Mr. Su’s touch is the bridge between the two. Because of the work Li has done making her readers invest in the Sus, their relationship, and their world, this “cheesy” ending instead comes off as “surprisingly right.”

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been systematically debased and dismantled. The loss is, in a very real way, the impetus to create Ultron in the first placethe world has lost its shield and needs a new one, “a suit of armor around the world,” to quote Tony Stark. When audiences were first introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D., it was a shadowy organization (that was still looking for a name, in fact). Over the course of Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, S.H.I.E.L.D. became a trustworthy force for good. Once audiences were sold on that idea with The Avengers, the organization was corrupted and destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If S.H.I.E.L.D. had been summarily and handily dismantled at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron, then the return of the helicarrier at the end of Act II would be nothing more than cheesy. Because Marvel took its time, did the work, and gave the audience a reason to care, the moment transcends its cheesiness, entering the realm of “surprising rightness.”

Many writing teachers/mentors/editors/what-have-you will talk of endings that are both satisfying and surprising. That can put a lot of apprentice writers on their back foot. A tall order, it seems, crafting an ending that both fulfills and defies reader expectations. What they are really talking about, though, is earning the ending, not creating it out of whole cloth. This is an exercise not only of language (because, let’s face it, you have to find a new way of presenting the cheesy) but also of structure. A story needs every moment to be fully explored and given its due. Nothing can be taken for granted. And if you do that, then your ending will rise up out of the clouds just in time to save you.

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It Follows

If you really want to conjure up a ghost
Cultivate a space for the things that hurt you most
—The Mountain Goats, “Outer Scorpion Squadron”

Horror stories need their audience (readers or viewers) to believe in the unreal aspects of the story in order to function. They need “space” inside the narrative in which the unreal can exist without destroying the real. There are several tactics to create this space. The “received tale” is one of them, presenting the unreal as second-hand information so that the audience comes to it at a remove. There is the tried and true “it may not be real” method, in which the reality of the unreal elements is called into question inside the narrative itself, allowing the audience to disbelieve in while still be affected by the “ghost” (Poe and Lovecraft, among others, go to this well often). Contrary to what one might think, even the “found footage” gimmick is one that creates space: although the audience experiences the story “first-hand,” the camera and, by extension, the character holding the camera, are actually keeping them at a distance—notice how the “cameraman” will often speak at tense moments in order to break the first-person facade—which allows the story to have its cake and eat it, too.

It Follows does something very interesting in this regard, something I’ve not seen (at least not to the same degree). Horror stories are, usually, allegories. A lot of the press for It Follows has made a big deal out of the fact that, on paper, the premise of the film is paper-thin when it comes to hiding its allegorical meaning—it’s simply “STD as Monster.” The trick that It Follows pulls off, though, is embracing the allegory to the point that it is no longer allegory, it’s the text. That last shot, Jay and Paul walking toward the camera hand in hand, Jay squeezing Paul’s hand in a subtle demonstration that she means it, is the kind of ending that pisses people off. The couple behind me in the theater sure weren’t happy, they didn’t even make it until the screen went black before they got up and left, muttering quietly, which was a change, since they had been talking loudly through the entire movie. Anyway, that scene is the perfect ending to the film. It follows. It always follows. And the kids who have wound up dead end up that way because they didn’t love/trust/respect the people from whom they “got” the monster. Paul loves Jay. And, in the end, Jay at least trusts Paul. Even if that figure walking behind them is It, we think they might be fine, because they’re together. See, only those who’ve had the monster “passed on” to them can see It. Therefore, running away from the person that gave It to you is counter-productive, but that’s just what almost everyone in the film does. Even when they aren’t “running away,” they are willfully separating themselves–for example, that strangely long scene of Greg talking with the girls after he sleeps with Jay. If he had, instead, stayed with her (and she with him, because it is shown that she doesn’t have much interest in hanging out once the deed is done and she’s out of the hospital), they may have survived.

By surfacing the allegory in this way, It Follows pulls its audience in while keeping them at enough of a distance that the unreal (here, It, the monster) has room to operate. The audience is aware of the allegory and is also aware that the film is aware of the allegory. Yara reads The Idiot on what appears to be a birth-control-pill-case Kindle. Greg’s death scene is straight-up murder-sex, complete with pearlescent ooze. There are peeping pre-teen boys, porno mags (It is going to have to kill each one of the wadded up tissues scattered around Huhg/Jeff’s mattress in the abandoned house before It finally kills him), and lingering sexual tensions all over the place in It Follows, reminding the audience at every turn that “here be allegory,” which defuses the time-bomb that is the audience’s patience for the allegory. Instead, the audience becomes invested in the allegory in the same way they become invested in the plot, through the characters. Once the audience is “with” the characters, the space inside the narrative becomes almost limitless. This is true of the other tactics for creating space–they all result in audience identification with the characters (the narrator isn’t sure the story she is relating is real; the camera-crew shows the audience exactly what they saw without judgment; etc.). The identification allows for suspension of disbelief (I hate that term, since it implies conscious effort, which the best horror stories definitely don’t require). The audience, in effect, is inside the narrative the same way the characters are and therefore excepts or denies the reality along with the characters.

It Follows is admirably smart, unafraid to ask, “See what I did there?” It borrows heavily and obviously from the classics—most directly from Carpenter, aping the wide open shots of Halloween and the dreamy, terrifying scores Carpenter often wrote himself—in a way that demands to be addressed as a component of the narrative. Are we in the 70s? The 80s? The near-future? Is this charmingly retro or depressingly of-the-now? The answer, of course, is that it is timeless because, as pointed out earlier, It follows, It always follows, It always has and always will.

In the end, It Follows isn’t the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen (although try listening to the soundtrack while walking the dog at night…) but it is one of the most truly satisfying. The horror never really ends, all you can hope for is to find someone to weather it with. There are no easy answers, no gypsy curses or restless victims of sexual violence. There are, though, lessons to be learned about homage, reference, theme, and narrative that are applicable to all kinds of stories.

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