About Christine Walker

Christine Walker is a visual artist and writer.

How to Write Fiction for Close Reading: Pay Attention to Significant Detail

The first sentence of a well-written novel gives clues to its theme and structure. Some great novels begin with a sweeping view of past events or future possibilities, but without significant details in the first sentence.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby); or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice).

Neither of these sentences give details of characters, even whether the protagonist will be male or female, or of setting. Both of these novels, of course, incorporate significant details in the writing as they progress, and they both contain vivid characters and setting.  Because so many great novels contain similar sweeping views toward the past or future, we might think we need to write our opening sentences to show the scope of our ambitions. But there are exceptions.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road begins with two small details of events and an indication that time has passed between these two moments. In this first sentence, two characters are introduced and the setting of the kitchen—the home—which also has a role as character.

“Later, after Hanna made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the big kettle on the range.”

Being an admirer of well-crafted first sentences, I puzzled at this one. I read it several times. Why begin with “later”? It seemed confusing. Why mention two mundane acts? Neither captured my imagination. I liked Enright’s previous prize-winning novel The Gathering very much, and like its predecessor, The Green Road also won the Man Booker Prize, among others. I trust this writer. I know that details matter to her. So I read on, paying close attention.

Cheese on toast is a simple, common food. Filling the hot water bottle from the kettle is a simple act of comfort and self-care. I already know a lot about these characters, this domestic story. “Later” indicates that time will be an element and that this writer is in control of it.

‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ she said. ‘Get me some Solpadeine.’

‘You think?’

‘My head’s  fog,’ she said.

So begins a novel that is all about the small moments of life, about paying attention or not paying attention to these moments, about retaining them in the memory and the heart, and about the time that passes between them and sequences them into a lifetime of moments well lived or not. The story is about what happens over the decades in the lives of the mother (Rosaleen Madigan) and her children Hanna, Emmet, Dan, and Constance.  In this post, I want to explore how and where the theme of paying attention to small moments manifests in Enright’s vivid writing.

Lesson: Loop time and use metaphor to mimic consciousness.

The first chapter, which begins on page 3, (Norton 2016 paperback edition) ends on page 35 with Roseleen again asking Hanna ‘Go on up to your uncle’s for me, will you?’ and declaring ‘My head’s a fog.’ In those 32 pages, we travel out of the Madigan’s house and over the humpy bridge into town, out and back again. Through observing select moments that Enright presents, we learn a bit about youngest daughter Hanna and see all four Madigan children in their roles in the family, see indications of the best and worst of Rosaleen—her ‘horizontal solution’ for dealing with things, her giving and withholding of love. We see the father (Pat). We meet the uncle (Bart) and other relatives. We observe some family dynamics between Rosaleen’s Considine relatives and her husband’s Madigan relatives.

With these moments, Enright starts us abruptly in a moment in the past and draws us years forward to where the Green Road may lead. “My head’s a fog” begins and ends the chapter. Readers have come full circle, as most of us often do in our own musings of the past. We’ve begun the story understanding that Rosaleen’s mind isn’t sharp. There are gaps in Rosaleen’s thinking, in her memory. Near the end of the novel, Rosaleen is wandering in the night and lost. We are in her consciousness:…there were gaps between things, and this frightened her. This is where Rosaleen was now. She had fallen into the gap.

This is how we think, how we remember. We  compress time and incident, we stack memories and loop them back on themselves, gathering up as we go random incidents that happened after the earlier memory but now inform that memory through other memories. In her first chapter, Enright has prepared the reader for traveling forward and backward in time, naturally as we do in memory and consciousness, a device she’ll use throughout the book.

Lesson: Show a moment in time to detail characters, emotions and motivations

The sweep of characters is shown, not told, through an omniscient and close-third chronicling of moments of conflicted love and attention.

Rather than tell readers that Hanna has internalized her mother’s inconsistent demonstration of love, Enright shows Hanna moving from lack of attention to what her mother said, thus being not worried, to being concerned about her mother’s health. Rather than say that Rosaleen’s relatives are annoyed because they feel Rosaleen married beneath her, Enright shows Uncle Bart’s [Rosaleen’s brother’s] irritation.  Hanna is at the pharmacy on the errand to pick up medication for her mother. ‘What does she want?’ [Bart said.] ‘Em. I can’t remember,’ said Hanna. ‘Her chest.’ Hanna gets the Solpadeine but lingers at the perfume counter,  “Do you think Mammy’s all right?” Her uncle replies, ‘Oh for God’s sake. What?” 

Rather than tell readers that Hanna’ oldest brother Dan feels a loyalty to his mother, whom he has hurt, and rather than tell us that Hanna feels conflicted by a loyalty to her mother and to Dan, Enright shows us a moment on one Sunday before Easter, shortly after Dan announces he is going to become a priest. Rosaleen has gone upstairs to her room and is not coming down. Dan hangs around, rather than going back to college. Hanna carries food up to his room. Sometimes he only took a bit of the food and Hanna finished it as she took it back to the kitchen, and the stale edge to the bread made her even more fond of her brother, in his confinement.

Rather than tell readers that Dan doesn’t fit into this family, Enright shows us a moment between Dan and Hanna on one Christmas when Dan is back home. Dan passed Hanna in the hall and he took her to him, saying, ‘Save me, Hanna. Save me from these ghastly people.’ He folded her in his arms.

Rather than tell readers that eldest daughter Constance will bear the burden of guilt for Rosaleen and stay close to home to continue trying to prove her love, Enright shows the family dinner table one night. Her mother juddering and sputtering, with the carrots falling from her mouth in little lumps and piles. ‘Oh, Mammy,’ said Constance, leaning in, with her arm around her, to slip the plate neatly away.

Lesson: Prepare the readers for what you want them to notice.

Writers notice details. Through our writing, we pay attention to what we notice and want our readers to notice.  By showing and telling, we decide what matters and what is important to our stories. The masterful handling of significant details can make good fiction more vivid and memorable. You can guide your readers into the story by starting with the sweeping view or starting with small, but meaningful, details. Enright could have begun with a view of the green road, which is an important element in the story. She could have given us a bird’s-eye view of the road curing through the landscape and shown the houses, the village, the cliffs. She could have begun high on the road, overlooking the sea, and brought us swooping down into the Madigan’s home, into their kitchen, to the boiling kettle. A cinematic beginning. But this book doesn’t have a cinematic feel. It feels close to the body, held within the family, within traditions even as characters strain against them. When Dan and Emmet venture far beyond Ireland, their conflicted emotions of family, of Rosaleen, her neediness—her inability to give unconditional love or to graciously accept the love they give—tethers them to her and to their home.

In the end, Rosaleen says, “I have paid too little attention. I think that’s the problem. I should have paid more attention to things.” But readers have paid attention. Enright has made sure that we noticed all those things that Rosaleen missed.

How to Create Presence of Place

Would you like to create a more vivid presence of place in your fiction? Here’s a Moment of Mastery to inspire your creative process for success: Name the flora and fauna.

A subscriber to my YouTube channel suggested that I feature award-winning mystery writer James Lee Burke for this topic. His descriptive prose gives place a compelling presence while serving the story. Watch the video and/or read below.

In “Black Cherry Blues,” Burke’s naming of flora and fauna stimulates the senses and sets up character: It was a place of salt-poisoned grass, alligators, insects, magpies, turkey buzzards, drowned cows whose odor reached a half mile into the sky, tropical storms that could sand the paint off a water tower, and people like my friend who had decided to slip through a hole in the dimension and live on their own terms.”

Burke describes a world so uninviting that even before you meet the friend, you already know something about him. Who could tolerate living in this hostile place?

In “A Morning for Flamingos,” the insistent naming of plants creates a felt, human-scale space and movement through it: “My apartment was inside a walled courtyard that you entered through an iron gate and a domed brick walkway. The flower beds were thick with blooming azalea and camellia and untrimmed banana tress, and the people who lived in the second-story apartments had placed coffee cans of begonias and hung baskets of impatiens along the balcony.”

The reader looks up. In spite of the security assumed by the iron gate, the hanging plants suggest unease and add to the story’s tension.

In “Dixie City Jam,” the naming of one specific bird and plant creates a sharp-focused scene: “Down below in the muddy current, a dead snow egret floated among an island of twigs and torn camellia leaves. The egret’s wing had been broken, and above one eye was the coppery glint of an embedded BB in the feathers.” The dead bird contrasts the stark beauty of life with death.

In “Heaven’s Prisoners,” a listing of views in rapid succession creates cinematic space: “The sugar cane and rice fields were behind me now. The black earth and flooded cypress and oak trees were replaced by pastureland and piney woods, lumber mills and cotton acreage, sandy red roads that cut through the limitless pecan orchards.”

The landscape speeding by serves the story with a sense of distance and time passing.

What places do you know well? Where have you lived and visited that shaped who you are? From that knowing can come powerful presence of place for your writing. Or do research. When populating place, put in specific flora and fauna to develop character, create tension, add sensory detail, and serve the story in many ways.

WRITING PROMPT: Think of a place or look at the photo of the alley in the video. Begin a scene. Add flora and fauna. Name them. Not just a hanging plant, but a genus or species – a Japanese wisteria or Million Bells. Not just an alley cat, but a breed – a Sphynx or Savannah. See how the names enhance and suggest more for the scene and start a story.

For a free trial of my online course “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery” go to courses.christinewalker.net

Visit my YouTube channel for videos on writing fiction, memoir, visual storytelling, and creative process. Transform Your Story —the one you’re writing, the one you’re living.

How to Write a Memoir – Reveal & Frame

Have you thought of writing a memoir and wondered if readers will be interested in your experiences?

Fiction shows truths about the human condition through invented characters. Memoir reveals the author’s particular truths through his or her character.

In memoir, you frame for your readers particular views of the world, revealed through your experiences. And you frame mirrors for your readers’ own revelations, prompted by yours. Readers of memoir relate to how you select the experiences for them. The elements and techniques of fiction are useful in memoir to structure your story and make it vivid.

Just as a novelist doesn’t include everything about the invented characters, a memoirist doesn’t include every experience of his or her life.

In his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson writes, “So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly.” His specific experiences are of growing up in the Midwestern United States in the 1950s. But anyone who has been a kid and has grown into an adult can relate. Being small and getting larger slowly is a universal experience. He makes the everyday minutia of his childhood memoir-worthy by framing it through humor, exaggeration, and a remembered in-the-body sensory awareness.

“I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

His reason for sitting inside a bush may be different from mine, but I can relate to being small enough to hide in one when playing hide and seek with the neighbor kids. Can you?

By valuing your life experience, discovering its universal essence, and magnifying it through vivid writing aided by fiction techniques, you can write a memoir that could make a splash!

Now— Reminisce on your childhood. What comes to mind vividly? What do you remember through all your senses? Write about it to discover your personal framing and its universal appeal.

Prepare yourself for Moments of Mastery!

How to Write Fiction – Tell Truths

“Truth” is a hot topic these days. Truthiness. Truth isn’t truth. Alternative facts. Fake news. Fiction is an art form based on questioning and finding deeper truths about ourselves and others—about what it is to be human.

In the 1960s, author Flannery O’Connor said,We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Written a half-century ago, her words speak to us today. “Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.”

For instance, a writer’s story about a town’s divisive politics—one group of people clinging to the past, another group wanting change—could become a polemic if the writer uses the narrative to argue his opinion and refute the other.

But what if this writer, inspired by seeing a small-town Fourth of July parade, creates a fictional character, who clings to the past and is afraid of the new. Let’s call him Ray. He’s a mechanic, a restorer of cars. His daughter marries someone of another race or religion. Then a family that Ray sees as “foreign” moves in next door. He’s angry. He’s used to fixing things, but he can’t fix this. He doesn’t have the tools. His world is disrupted. Now we have the beginnings of a story. Because fiction is about transformation, we know Ray must change, but how and why? What actions will he take?

In what ways will the daughter and neighbors also transform? Will they help Ray through a crisis? Will he help them? The writer avoids a timeworn polemic and explores universal human truths about choosing to love and making things right. Whether humorous, poignant, or tragic, the story becomes timeless. Through writing it, through reading it, we discover our own ability or inability to love deeply and to restore lovingly what’s been damaged.

Wherever fiction is set, past or present, fictional town or real, when it’s grounded in human truths, it will ring true for readers now and into the future. Without human truths, fiction would feel false. By telling truths with imagination, we make fiction readable, believable and memorable.

Go to https://courses.christinewalker.net for a free trial of my online course “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery.”

Now – go out into the world or turn on the news. Listen for differing opinions and deeply held beliefs. Listen for anger and hurt. Listen for human truths. Then give one deep belief to one character, the opposite to another.

Write a scene where they argue. What truths are at the depths of their emotions? What does each character have to gain or lose by changing? You, the writer, takes each side in your heart. What can you learn from them?

Prepare yourself for moments of mastery!

Writing Fiction – An Online Course

I created this blog several years ago to accompany the Read to Write Books writing classes I taught at my local bookstores for writers and readers. In the blog, you’ll find lessons of story, craft, and writing intentions that authors give us on the pages of books through their masterful examples of prose.

These past few months, I’ve been creating “Writing Fiction – 9 Ways to Mastery,” a self-paced online course featuring videos and writing activities in pdf. Check it out and enroll in the preview for free at Courses.ChristineWalker.net.

Today I launched a YouTube channel and posted this trailer for the course. It introduces the framework I call “Master Craft Juggling,” which I designed to help writers learn basic and advanced elements of fiction. I will also be posting a “Moments of Mastery” video every Friday to inspire and inform a meaningful, productive, and successful writing practice.

Writers start with a blank page every time and juggle the elements to make the story. I organize the elements into 9 groups to help you gain skill with them individually and in combination. They are: 1. First & Last Sentences and Story Seeds, 2. Voice, Style & Point of View, 3. Whole-bodied Characters, 4. Presence of Place, 5. Tension & Plot, 6. Time & Consciousness, 7. Love & Other Emotions, 8. Image & the Senses, 9. Theme & Gestalt.

Developing ability and agility with the elements of fiction will inform your writing practice, whether you’re starting a story, revising a novel draft, writing a memoir, writing nonfiction, or polishing for publication. The course will help you create fictional characters, plot a novel, shape your short story ideas, overcome writer’s block, develop your writer tools, establish good writing habits, find your writing voice, and much more. And you’ll have fun!

The best books on writing fiction are the novels and short story collections that masterful authors create. They show us by example how to write fiction that is compelling and memorable. The best writing advice is to read closely and well. If you read with a mind to enjoy the story but also to notice craft and intention from a writer’s perspective, you will always find within reach many wonderful and inspiring companions for your writing journeys. In my teaching, I show how to learn from these lessons that accomplished authors give us on the page.

Join me on my YouTube channel and online course in discovering how masterful fiction shows us ways to write our own memorable and publishable stories and books. Learn to write toward your highest aspirations and establish a writing practice to achieve your goals and potential. Preview the course for free at https://courses.christinewalker.net.

With “Writing Fiction – 9 Ways to Mastery,” you can access the video lessons and writing activities from anywhere and tuck in some watching and writing any time of day, wherever you can find a quiet moment to log on! And you can also download the videos and activities to take with you. You’ll be newly inspired every day to fulfill your writing desires and goals!

Get ready for mastery!

 

 

 

A Man Called Ove and What Love’s Got to Do with It

“Ove is fifty-nine.” That opening line, which is the complete first paragraph of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove, contains a world of inference about the curmudgeonly character. He exists, he’s of an age, and he’s called “Ove.” On first glance at the book’s cover, I read “Love.” My brain wanted to insert the missing “L.” Hmm. My mind corrects —no, not “love.” It’s Ove—an unusual name. However, the author is Swedish, so maybe not so unusual. (Later checking online there are many famous Scandanavian men called Ove.) But I’m English speaking, and I can’t help but hear the refrain from one of my favorite Tina Turner songs—“What’s love got to do with it?”

Backman spends the rest of the book answering this question, even as Ove protests. As it turns out, love has everything to do with it. We’re told in the third sentence that this man called Ove “is the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” I admit to not liking Ove here on page one, even if he does drive a Saab—a sturdy car which once saved a friend of mine’s life. So why did I read on?

Lesson: Make the reader want to spend time with the character.

This is a fiction writer’s great challenge, especially if the main character, for the sake of the narrative arc, is not a likeable guy or anticipated hero. On page one, Ove is trying to buy an iPad or laptop. He counters his feelings of being diminished by this experience—the confusing technology, the skinny young assistant who offers more arrogance than assurance (a common sales practice that in the nonfictional world often signals how much the clerk doesn’t know him or herself)—with demands. “I want a computer!” When the clerk tells him that a laptop is a computer, Ove explodes. “You think I don’t know that!”

With this, Ove steps into the reader’s heart. Whether you’re young or old, tech literate or not, shop at Apple, Best Buy, or big box, no doubt you’ve felt as Ove does—like a complete idiot (which you know you are not), extremely frustrated (which you have been for reasons having nothing to do with buying a computer and which exist in your life outside of the store), and shamed by someone whose help you need but who makes you feel (1. too old) (2.too young) (3. too dumb) (4. t00 desperate). You choose.

In the next chapter, we meet Ove’s wife through his eyes. She doesn’t speak when he talks to her, but we believe she loves him in a way no one has ever loved him—unconditionally. We see their routines, the way she tolerates his difficult personality, perhaps even loves him all the more for it. On his daily perambulation, we meet a cat and a few of his neighbors. Ove has grievances with everyone we meet, except for his wife. And then we discover that she had died, but continues to be very much alive in his imagination. Sonja is easy to love, and soon we join Ove in grieving her loss. Misery needs company.

Lesson: Craft a pitch-perfect narrative point of view.

Backman brings us close to Ove and leaves room for surprises. It’s Ove’s world and becomes ours too. Through a close-enough but not-all-the-way close third-person, Backman draws us into Ove’s head and heart, even though Ove would push us out, as he tries to do with everyone else. We see Ove as he sees himself, but we don’t see everything or make sense of everything until the right time in the narrative. We’re close enough to feel empathy for him and, at times, affinity with him. We often see or learn something that Ove doesn’t yet understand or never will. We are at once within Ove and outside of him, growing to care for him as his neighbors do, cheering him on to fail at each attempt he makes to end his life and to win happiness in the end.

With admirable skill, the author crafts a pitch-perfect, humorous, and deeply empathic narrative that keeps the reader wondering what’s next for Ove and hoping for the best. We feel the fist of his heart opening to accept the love of a family that move in next door, of people he meets and tries to avoid, of neighbors who have lived on his street for decades.

The last chapter could be called “A Man Called Ove and a Reader Who Laughs and Cries because She’s Going to Miss Him When She Closes the Book.”

 

Trouble with Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict. I prefer to avoid it in real life, but must heighten it in my fiction. My teachers at the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars said, “Give your characters more trouble!” Every good writing manual says, “Conflict is the heart of fiction.” Characters without conflict are nice people we might like to meet for lunch but wouldn’t compel us to turn pages when reading about them.

Lesson: Trouble comes in many forms. Imagine the possibilities!

Author Nancy Margulies invents troubled characters —“strangers” for whom she feels “compassion for their predicaments and gratitude for their honesty.”

As promised (see my post of November 25, 2013), Margulies has written a group of stories titled Sudden Friction. They comprise a chapter in her book of short shorts Animal Husband, where she dishes out all kinds of conflict. Her inspiration comes from one-word prompts—such as patient, bridge, final act—given by her writing group.

Here are a few characters: the six-year-old girl who can’t speak but conveys love to her mother: seven-year-old Millicent and Michael, conjoined twins separated at the age of four; Rose, a repentant arsonist; Ralph and JoyLee, whose marriage stinks; Francie, who tries to deconstruct her horrific childhood; Maggie and Peggy spilling secrets about their high school days; Marsha, who follows in the footsteps of a man on a beach; Grandma Nell, who believed a bracelet would protect her; a daughter hospitalized because her father commanded her to dive; a beat-up teenager who knocks on his aunt’s door.

Lesson: Let the reader be the judge, not the author.

The process of writing “whatever comes to mind without judging or editing” allows room for the compassion needed to conjure such misfortunate characters onto the page. Margulies sketches them vividly for us to witness. Will we like them or care about them? Maybe, maybe not. Do they even like or care about themselves? Not always. But most of them come to life after only a few paragraphs or pages. And many of them stick in the mind and heart after meeting.

These people could go anywhere—they’re fiction! Margulies takes them briefly into imagined circumstances and offers unexpected, wise, or open-ended resolutions. If we follow them beyond the stories, dig deeper into character, what would we discover? Some of her characters experience similar troubles and a few characters reappear. Margulies explores themes of abuse, abandonment, secrecy, confrontation, and acceptance. “Bad Daddy” show up in many guises, bad deeds go unpunished, and people hope for the best.

Lesson: Let there be rays of light in the darkness!

In Margulies’ stories, truth is mercurial and promises vanish, but otherwise bleak circumstances are gifted by her humor. Even the most despicable characters or ones that might in other hands beg for our pity, receive her comic relief. These people open their closets and shut their mouths. They threaten, murder, betray, repent, apologize, and forgive—not necessarily in that order. They witness magic; they look on the bright side. When a crystal horse come alive in Macy’s and quickly disappears, the clerk makes the best of being left with horseshit, not a magic horse. The crystal turds “are stunning,” after all.

Lesson: Explore a range of real emotions & find out what your characters need.

If we are loved and nourished, educated and accomplished, where’s the problem? If we are safe and have self-esteem, what is the real need? Is hatred, shame, terror, or longing the most powerful emotion to explore in fiction? Is sex or justice a more compelling goal for a character to seek? Each of us lives in our own skin, as do our characters, and any range or amount of troubles can be authentic and compelling. Any need can be intriguing. It all depends on our ability to write characters, and their ability to carry the story.

For my Read to Write Books workshops, I develop visuals to aid writers in their craft. Recently, I’ve been struggling with a protagonist who is, by her own admission, flawed and forlorn. I envisioned her narrative arc from feeling deadened inside to full of life, from grieving to gracious. But the problem is, her troubles aren’t interesting enough to keep the reader turning pages. I need to re-imagine her flaws, up the ante on her problems, heighten her losses and gains. Below, I’ve posted visuals I created for the Love & Emotions workshop. I’m re-visiting these schematics to give my protagonist more conflict and depth. And I thank Nancy Margulies for her example of compassionately imagining and presenting troubled characters—ones we may come to love or hate, but who eagerly claim the right to take up space on the page and in our hearts and minds.

May all your troubles be interesting!

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Provocative Short Shorts

“Short Shorts: Sudden Fiction” by Nancy Margulies brings to mind in the very best way those colorful foam Magic Grow bathtub toys that begin as little gel capsules. When my son was small, we’d drop a capsule into the warm water and watch it miraculously birth a lion or giraffe, elephant or dinosaur within minutes. Even knowing the science—a dry sponge squeezed tightly into a small space will expand exponentially when wet—didn’t make it less amazing and fun. What Nancy Margulies brings forth in stories quickly inspired by one-word, emailed prompts is similarly marvelous. Her “Short Shorts” expand vividly and unpredictably on the page.

On first reading the book, I assumed that these crisp, visual, and emotionally charged stories had evolved through revision for publication from the author’s initial “free writes” sent as replies to her writing group’s prompts. When I learned that these published versions were drafted in twelve minutes or less and not reworked, I was impressed and mystified. How does she do it?

Lesson: Choose precise details 

This author is gifted in making us see. From the opening in “Preparing to Meet My Birth Mother”—”…as cherry blossom explode off their branches, wrapping around houses like so many pink scarves”—to the final entry “Not Here” on page 53 (yes, it’s a short book) —“As people paint Hitler mustaches on the image of our President…”—Margulies uses images to establish emotional tone, define character, create scenes, and extend meaning beyond the poetic prose. The prompt for the first story is “mother.” The character tells us she “should be packing instead of watching” the cherry blossoms out the window. She then steps through the imagined packing, telescoping the twenty-nine years missing from life with her birth mother through bursts of autobiography and could-have-beens. She sums up her first short marriage to LeRoy Pratt in these eight one-syllable words: “He won races. I wore a pit pass.”

Throughout the book, there are these “magic grow” details that encapsulate a relationship or era of a character’s life. These gems could be dropped into the warm bath of imagination and expanded into longer works of fiction, but they serve this short form beautifully and economically.

Lesson: Deliver meaning through form

“Strip Poker,” a scant page of story prompted by the word “layers,” is a confession by a girl that she’s been raped. Margulies devotes four brief paragraphs to layering her character from childhood through teenage years with skirts, shorts, slips tucked into shorts, and a bra stuffed with toilet paper, only to strip her bare in one final sentence. “Turns out she was wrong” is the narrator’s response to her mother’s belief that no one would have the patience to rape a girl so layered by clothes. We don’t know when the rape happened or any hint of the perpetrator, but the horror lingers in those final five words which ravish the girl’s modesty and innocence, along with the belief in a wise mother who could keep her safe.

The story “Backwards” (prompt “backwards”) is a witty and pithy unraveling from the narrator’s gentle present time through past generations spiked by family tragedy, dislocation, and finally to a pre-literate time when the ancestors “told stories that were passed down then forgotten” leaving the rest of this story “anybody’s guess.” The remaining inches of blank page loom large with possibilities.

Lesson: Try it!

Prompts can inspire writing at any stage of mastery. Whether working alone or in a supportive group, writers can discover more about their characters, their stories, and themselves through random prompts and timed exercises. The prompts used by Margulies in this book are Mother, Dream, Time, Mask, Adventure, Photo, Short, Imagine, Missed, Morning, Layers, High School, Backwards, Secrets, Clutter, Regret, Goals, New Job, Sun, News, Wanting a Child, Sacred, Boyfriend, Yellow, Last Words, Crush, Committed, Late Night, Candy, Wanting, Who I Was, Photo, Assertive, Pause, Independence, Ocean, Songs, Fitting In, Memory, and Garden.

Choose a word. Allow twelve minutes or less to write. Dig deep. Have fun. Risk revealing what you have never before revealed. Surprise yourself. Intrigue your readers. Email the story to your own address or to fellow writers. If you’re like me you’ll end up with a notebook full of promising free writes, any of which might produce a publishable story upon considered revision. If you’ve mastered the short form as Margulies has, then you’ll soon be working on your new collection. Watch for “Sudden Friction: Stories That Rub You the Wrong Way” to see what emerges next from this author.

Gathering Emotions

Here I am writing a review of The Gathering by Anne Enright. Here is the story briefly: Veronica Hegarty’s brother dies from a suicide drowning. She travels from Ireland to England to claim his body, arranges its return to Ireland, and gathers her many surviving siblings to their mother for the memorial service. While doing so, she travels into the past—her own, her grandmother Ada’s—to reveal a dark detail of sexual abuse she witnessed long ago involving her brother and an older man, a friend of her grandmother’s.

This book thrusts its enormous and hugely loving emotional reach through generations, across relationships—sibling to sibling, daughter to parents, granddaughter to grandparents, mother to children, wife to husband.

Lesson: Use clear “gatekeepers” to frame time shifts and emotional range. 

Veronica’s life becomes unmoored by Liam’s death and by her memory of the incident from their past. Her journey through time and places could be as chaotic for the reader as it is for her, but Enright gives Veronica the good sense—she is the organized sibling, after all— to orient us with each shift of time and emotional focus.

Here are Enright’s “gatekeepers”—first lines for the first several chapters—that orient the reader to each chapter:

 1. I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

2. Some days I don’t remember my mother.

3. The seeds of my brother’s death were sewn many years ago.

4. I ring the bereavement people in Brighton and Hove from Mammy’s phone in the hall, and they give me the number of an undertaker who, very nicely, takes my credit card details while I have it handy.

5. Here is my grandfather, Charlie Spillane, driving up O’Connell Street towards his future wife in the Belvedere Hotel.

6. This is how I live my life since Liam died.

7. But let that wait. Let the poor chicken wait awhile. Here I am on the Brighton line, on my way to collect my brother’s body, or view it, or say hello to it, or goodbye or whatever you do to a body you once loved.

8. When I was eight and Liam was nearly nine, we were sent with our little sister, Kitty, to stay with Ada in Broadstone.

9. The man beside me on the train to Brighton lifts his pelvis slightly, and settle it back down.

10. Here’s Ada and Charlie in bed a year later.

11. I was opening the car door for the girls one day before Liam died and, as it swung past, I saw my reflection in the window.

12. Bad news for Bea and my mother and all the vultures who will flock to 4 Griffith Way for the wake—which is that there will be another ten days at least to wait before they can feast on Liam’s poor corpse, because of the paperwork involved.

13. When I was in college, I decided that Ada had been a prostitute—the way you do.

14. I think of her when I do the dishes.

Enright’s powerful and disturbing emotional material tumbles in Veronica’s mind, but the gatekeepers keep readers grounded when they enter the chapter as to time, place, and emotional territory explored.

Memory can be elusive to the narrator—where did it happen, when?—but readers don’t want to be confused by the where and when of the story. A clear narrative structure is not only kind to the reader, it also helps the author deliver her punch. The more emotional the material, the simpler the transition exposition can be, so that the emotional narrative or scenes rise like shark fins on a calm surface.

Lesson: Use all the senses to crescendo emotional material.

Enright writes from the body and uses all the senses. Sex is a theme throughout the story — good and bad, loving and illicit. The sensuality of children, their innocence, is played against what Veronica, now a grown woman, views in hindsight and what we, as adult readers, also glean in her storytelling.

Page 98:

Here’s me at the age of three, with my ear pressed against the beige tin cliff of her washing machine…

Here’s me eating Ada’s rubber bathing hat whose famous yellow flowers appeared in my nappy the next day. Though, of course it must have been Kitty’s nappy—hardly mine.

Here’s me, definitely, pulling the bathing cap over my face. I lick the salty inside of it, until it seals me up—the smell of Ada’s hair in the sea.

Page 101:

Ada’s little garden was probably just a yard, but we thought it an exciting place, with crab apples and nettles: the door to the garage was sometimes open and sometimes bolted, and the fat that you never knew if Mr Nugent was in there only added to the interest.

 I just used to slide up and down the upholstery, or squirm across the nice rows of stitching, and talk in a grand voice to whoever was driving, whether or not he was actually there.

 On a Friday he came round to the front door to know, and he always had sweets for the children. He wore a hat, which he doffed when Ada opened the door. It was many years before I wondered at the formality of this arrangement, or what was going on.

The themes of love, loss, sex, betrayal, and forgiveness reverberate across the years. The mysteries of the body and the heart befuddle the child and the woman Veronica has become, perhaps as they befuddled Ada, a woman of a different time, more repressed by her era than Veronica is by hers. Yet the freedoms of a more openly sexual era don’t make it easier for Veronica, a modern woman, to sort out her emotions.

Lesson: Use the tangible body to contrast with a psychological, emotional state.

Veronica veers back and forth from past to present and to and from her brother’s death and her own disintegration— her marriage to Tom, her sense of self. Enright plays Veronica’s fragile state of mind against tangible flesh and domestic objects.

Page 133:

I can not feel the weight of my body on the bed. I can not feel the line of my skin along the sheet. I am swinging an inch or so off the mattress, and I do not believe in myself—in the way I breath or turn—and I do not believe in Tom beside me: that he is alive (sometimes I wake to find him dead, only to wake again). Or that he loves me.

 …I wake to a livid tumescence on his prone body; a purple thing on the verge of decay. Tom is flung wide on his back, asleep like a dead saint, or a child.

 …And I turn around again and gather the covers about me, as the thing my husband is fucking in his sleep slowly recedes. A thing that might be me…Or it might not be me.

This is a setup for the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child and which appears in the book ten pages later. It also sets her more adrift.

Lesson: Follow Chekhov’s advice.

An often-quoted piece of advice from Anton Chekhov applies here.”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Substitute “penis.” His advice also concerns the economy of story elements put them there for a reason and make good use of them.

Enright prefigures the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child with a perfectly legitimate and ordinary bedroom scene featuring Tom’s “cock so purple and dense it was a burden to him.” (Page 133)

We have that image in our mind when, in the next chapter, the child Veronica happens upon Mr Nugent and Liam, in Ada’s good front room.

Page 143:

What struck me was the strangeness of what I saw, when I opened the door. It was as if Mr Nugent’s penis, which was sticking straight out of his flies, had grown strangely, and flowered at the tip to produce the large and unwieldy shape of a boy, that boy being my brother Liam, who, I finally saw, was not an extension of the man’s member, set down mysteriously on the ground in front of him, but a shocked (of course he was shocked, I had opened the door) boy of nine, and the member not even that, but the boy’s bare forearm, that made a abridge of flesh between himself and Mr Nugent.

As an adult, Veronica questions her memory. What did she really see? But readers see the penis—an echo of Tom’s erect and spousal, but this one erect and terrible—a threat to the young Liam. Neither he nor Veronica, at the time, understands the harm. We readers do understand. We know the difference between right and wrong, between a man naked with his wife in a casual bedroom scene and a man exposing himself to a young boy. Veronica, the young girl, could not have given us the vivid description of Mr Nugent’s penis that she gave of Tom’s. It would have been crude and inappropriate within her narrative. The unadorned description “so purple and dense” from the woman Veronica’s bedroom contrasts with the “flowered at the tip” from the child Veronica’s memory of her intrusion into her grandmother’s “good room.” There’s another contrast—not such a “good” room, after all.

Like Chekhov’s gun, the penis is a necessary element. It’s better to describe it before the crime, because in the heat of the moment, can we trust our eyes? And even if we could, the description would impede the crime scene, especially if we want doubt about what was witnessed to linger in the mind of a key character or the mind of the reader.

Lesson: Reveal emotions through the body.

We know bodies. We each have one. Usually our bodies know before we consciously understand what is wrong, what is right, and what our emotional state is. Enright gifts Veronica with body awareness, and Veronica lets us read her body along with her. We discover her emotional state as she does.

Page 244:

I have been so much touched these last few days. I cross my legs over the memory of the ex we had the night of the wake. Or he had. And wait for the Mass to begin. Everyone wants a bit of me. And it has nothing to do with what I might want, or what my body might want, whatever that might be—God knows it is a long time since I knew. There I am, sitting on a church bench in my own meat: pawed, used, loved, and very lonely.

I won’t tell here how the story ends. Veronica’s memory of Liam’s abuse appears halfway through the book. It’s the trigger for her bodily and emotional journey through time and space.

But even if you know how the book ends, you’ll want to read it again and again for the Enright’s exquisite and profound sensory gathering of emotions.

A Working Theory of Character

Pre-publication reviews for A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins promise a great debut novel—”brainy, bright, brilliantly observant about the way we live now, brilliantly inventive, incandescent with humor and insight, astonishing, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over-kind of novel”—and the book doesn’t disappoint. I agree with author Charles Baxter’s jacket blurb that the “haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”

It’s lodged in mine. But is it the story or character that haunt? Those strands weave together in any good fiction. In this book there are two main characters‚ Neill Jr (the first-person narrator) and “drbas” (Dr. Bassett, Neill Sr), and two story lines that lace tightly, inextricably and, yes, brilliantly, for a fast, enjoyable read. The laudable invention of the book is Dr. Bassett, whose role in the story is as a computer being groomed for artificial intelligence. He has been programmed with the diaries that the human Dr. Bassett kept while alive. The book’s most haunting aspect, to this reader, is how the “drbas” character lives beyond the page.

Lesson: Grow affection for characters by revealing their vulnerabilities

The narrator (Neill Jr) is flawed. He confirms this on page one by comparing himself to an upstairs neighbor, a hermit who is carted out of the apartment building by paramedics. Though Neill wouldn’t trade places with Fred, he isn’t living a much more colorful or enviable life. He is thirty-six, divorced, commutes two hours a day to his job at Amiante Systems—a linguistic computer project (Neill has no computer science background), and “without self-pity” follows an uneventful bachelor’s routine of daily rituals. He states that “[n]ot everyone’s life will be a great love story,” but in that statement lies the promise that this book just might tell his. He is waiting for something to fill him, and we feel his huge hole. He has room to grow.

Drbas is also flawed. He was flawed as a man, husband, and father who committed suicide, and also leaves much to be desired as a computer linguistics program. He’s awkward, inarticulate, full of clichés and platitudes, and emotionally distant. He has room to grow.

Rachel, a twenty-year-old woman Neill meets at a hostel, is also vulnerable. A spiritual seeker involved with the cult of “Pure Encounters” when they meet, she becomes his love interest and adds unpredictability (always a benefit for good fiction) to his staid life. She has room to grow.

All this room to grow gives readers room to grow their affection for the characters. To the end, we’re rooting for them to claim the potential the story suggests they deserve.

Lesson: Make characters memorable through their relationships with other characters 

Drbas is only a computer, but through Dr. Bassett’s diaries with which he’s been programmed and Neill’s daily interactions with him, he gains a real presence in Neill’s life and in the story. In fact, he seems to take on a life of his own to the extent that Neill confides in him about his new girlfriend and also looks to him for insight and closure on their father/son relationship.

Neill is evolving his own presence as a man who is able to inhabit a full, adult life. He is becoming a person who can better negotiate his fear of being in a relationship, of being disappointed, of giving and receiving unconditional love—whether with a parent or a mate.

Rachel can never meet the real Dr. Bassett, long dead at the time of the story, but Neil juxtaposes them in the narrative. “Rachel’s eyes were crystalline green and bright, but here they’re dark and dull, the color of old limes. Her skin is waxy white; a broad brush of young blood runs from cheek to jaw. Blood, as my father once, said, is both vital and mortal. He was a physician, after all.”

Lesson: Infuse the writing with sensory material to bring your characters come alive

Hutchins follows beautifully the cardinal rule of fiction writing and engages all the senses. He uses sensory material economically, such as when introducing in the first paragraph the fact that Neill has been married by having him say “my ex-wife used to complain about the smell” of Fred’s cigarette smoking. He uses it pointedly, singling Rachel out from the two girls he meets at the hostel.”The girls are lightly dressed, as if we’re hitting the clubs in Miami: short skirts with Ugg boots, tube tops skintight and grimacing. They shiver. The blonde, Rachel—the more handsome but less cute of the two—reddens and speckles from the gusting cold.” He uses it to set a tone at work with Livorno, his eccentric boss: “The rhythmic ting-tock-ting-tock of Livorno’s practice putts comes to a stop.”

Neill craves the human touch. Drbas and Rachel represent the extremes of that desire. He never felt enough affection from his father while Dr. Bassett was alive, and the computer falls short in that department. But Rachel is fully fleshed. “I put my hand under the heavy band of her sweatshirt and help her take it off, feeling the ridges of her ribs. A clavichord, a scallop shell. Her deodorant smells warmly of cloves.”

Lesson: It’s okay to have your characters live “happily ever after”

No spoilers here. I won’t give away the plot such as it is—more than to say that the charm of this story is greatly how these characters grow on us and the affection we feel for them. This is a human and hard-wired character-driven story with many lessons for the writer and a few hours of pure enjoyment for the reader.