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.


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!




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.

Three Love Stories: Jasmine, Atonement, Lolita

Three selections from the Read to Write Books session Love & Other Emotions prompted several questions: What is a love story? How is its telling affected by choice of narrator? What does a reader hope to experience in reading a love story? How does an author get under the skin of his or her characters to convey sensuality? How much is enough when writing sex scenes? How can the state of being in love be made believable on the page?

Jasmine, Atonement, and Lolita are interesting for what they do differently, as well as for what they do similarly. In traditional love stories (formulaic perhaps, but fulfilling our expectations), boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they fall in love, overcome obstacles, and, depending on whether it’s a comedy or tragedy, live happily ever after or not.

Authors Bharati Mukherjee, Ian McEwan, and Vladimir Nabokov dodge the formulaic story arc by employing unusual narrative structures and by framing the essential love stories within social, political, moral, and legal contexts, not merely for plot purposes, but to heighten the contrast with “normality” and thus lay bare that normal and complex emotion of “love.”

As unique as these love stories are, however, the basics elements remain: two people, desire, obstacles, and endings that deny or fulfill the relationship.

Lesson: Start with unlikely matchmaking that resists easy fulfillment 

Jasmine: Conflicts of culture and life experience

In Mukherjee’s Jasmine, the heroine, born in Punjab, transforms from a traditionally-raised Indian girl named Jyoti, to a wife called “Jasmine” by her modern-minded Indian husband, Prakash, to a refugee called “Jazzy” by a woman who befriends her in America, to an au pair dubbed “Jase” by Taylor, the father of the girl she cares for in New York, to a woman known as “Jane,” who lives with a disabled Iowan farmer twice her age. Told in first person, her love story begins with Prakash, whom she marries at fifteen, and ends with Taylor, for whom she abandons her Iowa life at twenty-four.

As a young girl in India, Jasmine receives a prophecy that she will be widowed and exiled, but doesn’t want to accept it…

“What happened?” my sister shrieked as they sponged the bleeding star on my forehead with the wetted ends of their veils. “Now your face is scarred for life? Who will the family even find you a husband?”

“It’s not a scar,” I shouted, “it’s my third eye.”…”Now I’m a sage.”

Prakash is murdered. He had wanted them to go to America; so to honor him, Jasmine makes the trip. No longer an innocent girl, her experiences in America as a new immigrant scar her emotionally, but she still desires dreams of love and family.

The love I felt for Taylor that first day had nothing to do with sex. I fell in love with his world, its ease, its careless confidence and graceful self-absorption. I wanted to become the person they thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate. Not illegal, not murderer, not widowed, raped, destitute, fearful. In Flushing, I had lived defensively in the midst of documented rectitude. I did not want to live legally if it also meant living like a refugee.

Atonement: Conflicts of class

In McEwan’s Atonement, Cecilia and Robbie fall in love. She is the daughter of upper-class parents; he is their maid’s son. They had been playmates in childhood, and Cecilia’s father paid for his education. Their love relationship might have been accepted in spite of their conflicting social status, but Robbie’s low birth makes it easier for a false accusation to stick and keep the lovers apart. But before the accusation, before they realize they’re in love, they must melt their own resistance to one another. Several points of view and forward-backward play of timeline add to this novel’s dramatic impact. In the passages below, we are in Cecilia’s consciousness.

But her childhood friend and university acquaintance, Robbie Turner, was on his knees, weeding along a rugosa hedge, and she did not feel like getting into conversation with him. Or at least, not now. Since coming down, landscape gardening had become his last craze but one. Now there was talk of medical college, which after a literature degree seemed rather pretentious. And presumptuous too, since it was her father who would have to pay.

Three pages later, less resistance…

And there was Robbie, who exasperated her with his affectation of distance, and his grand plans which he would only discuss with her father. They had known each other since they were seven, she and Robbie, and it bothered her that they were awkward when they talked. Even though she felt it was largely his fault — could his first have gone to this head? — she knew this was something she must clear up before she thought of leaving.

Next page, even less resistance…

…. she wondered about going out to Robbie. It would save her from running upstairs. But she felt uncomfortable and hot, and would have liked to check her appearance in the large gilt mirror above the fireplace. But if he turned round — he was standing with his back to the house, smoking — he would see right into the room.

Lolita: Conflicts of human character and morals

Nabokov’s Lolita is Humbert Humbert’s case history—his pseudonymous memoir, a defense, and an apology in his own words for his love affair with Lolita, his “stepdaughter” and a child at the time the relationship commenced. Laced with double entendres and word play, the book is a feast of prose. Whether read as a tragicomedy, a metaphor for totalitarianism, confessions of a pervert, or psychology of a nymphet, this classic novel immortalized two iconic characters — Humbert Humbert and Lolita.

Gentlemen of the jury! I cannot swear that certain motions pertaining to the business in hand—if I may coin an expression—had not drifted across my mind before. My mind had not retained them in any logical form or in any relation to definitely recollected occasions; but I cannot swear—let me repeat—that I had not toyed with them (to rig up yet another expression), in my dimness of thought, in my darkness of passion. There may have been times—there must have been times, if I know my Humbert—when I had brought up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow (say, Charlotte Haze) with not one relative left in the wide gray world, merely in order to have my way with her child (Lo, Lola, Lolita).

We’re 114 pages into the book when Humbert, finally alone with Lolita, would have his way with her, it would seem, but while driving Lo away from summer camp, Humbert meets her come-on with resistance of his own, prolonging his cat-and-mouse game. Lolita doesn’t yet know of her mother’s death and enjoys acting in a way she knows her mother would disapprove.

“Say, wouldn’t Mother be absolutely mad if she found out we were lovers?”

“Good Lord, Lo, let us not talk that way.”

“But we are lovers, aren’t we?

“Not that I know of. I think we are going to have some more rain. Don’t you want to tell me of those little pranksof yours in camp?”

“You talk like a book, Dad.”

“What have you been up to? I insist you tell me.”

“Are you easily shocked?”

“No. Go on.”

“Let us turn into a secluded lane and I’ll tell you.”

“Lo, I must seriously ask you not to play the fool. Well?’ 

Lesson: Pile on obstacles to hinder the love relationship

Jasmine: Just as she finally finds happiness with Taylor and his daughter, Jasmine’s past catches up with her.

He was walking me now, half-pulling me, back to the cement benches that lined the mall. I could feel Duff reaching for my hand. I wanted to talk, but my throat had sealed. I couldn’t get my breath, it was like asthma.

We were standing by the traffic light at Ninety-sixth Street, at the bottom of Riverside Drive’s longest hill. “Tell me what’s wrong, for god’s sake. can I get you anything?”

“That was the man who killed my husband,” I said, between long gasps. “He knows…he knows me. He know I’m here.”

She leaves New York for Iowa, and another round of obstacles builds, or has built, because by the time we read the above scene, we’re familiar with her midwestern life. As Jane—unmarried, pregnant, stepmother/older sister to seventeen-year-old refugee Du, helpmate in the role of wife and love to disabled farmer Bud—, she lives a life infused with modern and old-world values. It is in many ways a parody of a life she might have led in India, had she been dutifully wed to a kind older man not of her choosing and become the caretaker of his family. Bud loves her completely; she’s fond of him, but not in love with him. The book’s narrative structure—events and timeline chopped up into a curry—makes the story more compelling than if it had been delivered chronologically.

Atonement: Misperceptions and false accusation by Briony, Cecilia’s sister, lead to Robbie’s arrest.

Briony, an aspiring 13-year-old writer, succumbs to her dangerous imagination and diverts the lovers’ path from happiness. The passage below is from her point of view.

The handcuffs were in full view but Robbie did not appear ashamed or even aware of them as he faced Cecilia and listened gravely to what she was saying. The impassive policemen looked on. If she was delivering the bitter indictment Robbie deserved to hear, it did not show on his face. Though Cecilia was facing away from her, Briony thought she was speaking with very little animation. Her accusations would be all the more powerful for being muttered. They had moved closer, and now Robbie spoke briefly, and half raised his locked hands and let them fall. She touched them with her own, and fingered his lapel, and then gripped it and shook it gently. It seeemed a kindly gesture and Briony was touched by her sister’s capacity for forgiveness, if this was what it was.

Lolita: Humbert’s secret plans are nearly thwarted by a man who  later become Humbert’s nemesis when the man takes Lolita for his own playmate.

Humbert is on the hotel porch, eager to get back to his room where he’s left Lolita after giving her sleeping pills. As he’s imagining how their effect will allow him to fulfill his fantasies with her, he hears a voice from the dark porch.

“Where the devil did you get her?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: the weather is getting better.”

“Seems so.”

“Who’s the lassie?”

“My daughter.”

“You lie—she’s not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”


“I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow. That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.”

“We’ll be gone too. Good night.”

Lesson: Use sensuous language to render “love” scenes that are natural but not ordinary 

Jasmine: Her story is charged by restraint: every mention of touch sizzles. 

Raised to deny her sexual and personal desires, Jasmine gradually discovers and learns to claim them.

Maybe Taylor was very fond of me. Even a little bit in love with me. But in love with me in a different way than he was in love with witty, confident Wylie. On the nights that he had time to help tuck Duff in bed—a ritual that Wylie’d cherished—he wanted me to stay in the darkened room to sit on my cot with him so he could lay one of his big pale hands on Duff’s and the other on mine and spin long bedtime stories about the muddles and mysteries of physics. On those nights, we—Duff, Taylor, and I—became a small, self-sufficient family, and I told myself, guiltily, that everything might really work out all right.

Atonement: A love scene in the library of Cecilia’s home carries the promise of the lovers’ desire through the rest of the novel.

Once Cecilia and Robbie release the resistance they feel for one another caused by their shared pasts and class differences, their passion mounts quickly. Secreted in the house away from dinners guests, they consummate their love only moments before they are discovered by Brionny. In McEwan’s prose, we discover the lovers’ passion along with them, as their familiarity gives way to a new intimacy and knowledge of what their bodies can do together and for one another. Writing about sex can be profane, mundane, erotic or sensual; it can be bodies making contact in sensible or awkward positions; it can elicit readers’ responses of “Been there, done that, read that,” or “Oh! This feels new, real.” McEwan’s writing brings readers into complicity with the lovers and sparks our shared desire for them to fulfill their longing. He avoids the expected bedroom scene and having the lovers voice the obligatory “I love you.”

Until that moment, there was still something ludicrous about having a familiar face so close to one’s own. They felt watched by their bemused childhood selves. But the contact of tongues, alive and slippery muscle, moist flesh on flesh, and the strange sound it drew from her, changed that. This sound seemed to enter him, pierce him down his length so that his whole body opened up and he was able to step out of himself and kiss her freely.

A page and a half of love making against the library shelves continues…

They held their breath before the membrane parted, and when it did she turned away quickly, but made no sound—it seemed to be a point of pride. They moved closer, deeper and then, for seconds on end, everything stopped. Instead of an ecstatic frenzy, there was stillness…

Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can every quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first.

More lovemaking against the shelves…then on page 130 Brionny walks in. The power of the love scene pierces and holds tension of unfulfilled desire through the remaining 221 pages.

Lolita: Lively, lyrical, comical prose describes a man’s lust for an underage girl.

Lolita may or may not know what Humbert is doing or where the line of propriety should be drawn, but Humbert knows and so does Nabokov. The author has fun with wordplay to show his character’s state of mind and physical condition as Humbert is titillated and brought to orgasm by the young girl “innocently” sitting on his lap.

She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in it innocent cotton frock.

Under my glancing finger tips I felt the minute hairs bristle ever so slightly along her shins. I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay…As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body.

The scene continues with a profusion of euphemisms:

…a delicious distension of my innermost roots

…With the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion.

…The corpuscles of Krause were entering the phase of frenzy. The least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose.

…Suspended on the brink of that voluptuous abyss

…there seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin.

…and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

Lesson: Satisfy the love story with an ending that delights, surprises, gratifies, thwarts, resolves, reveals, pains, thrills, punishes, repents or dishes up emotions in any of the myriad combinations experienced in real life.

Jasmine: This book is the only one of the three in which the lovers ride off into the sunset.

These are the last sentences of the book. Taylor has found Jasmine in Iowa and asks her to come with him and Duff to California. In choosing her freedom to go over any obligation to stay and help Bud, she makes a final break with tradition and fully embraces her new, all-American womanhood.

Then there is nothing I can do. Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope.

Atonement: Two different endings satisfy and thwart the reader’s hope that the lovers will finally be together.

This scene, witnessed by Briony, is from the first ending. It reiterates the frontal, upright bodily position of the lovers in the library. Cecilia and Robbie’s happiness seems possible, probable, all the more tender and magnificent for what they’ve endured, though the events that Briony set in motion have wounded them all.

As Cecilia gripped him tighter, he twisted his whole body away from her, and they seemed like wrestlers as she reached up and tried to turn his head toward her. But his face was tilted back, his lips retracted and teeth bared in a ghoulish parody of a smile. Now with two hands she was gripping his cheeks tightly, and with an effort she turned his face and drew it toward her own. At last he was looking into her eyes, but still she kept her grip on his cheeks. She pulled him closer, drawing him into her gaze, until their faces met and she kissed him lightly, lingeringly on the lips. With a tenderness that Briony remembered from years ago, waking in the night, Cecilia said, “Come back…Robbie, come back.”

Lolita: The story ends badly for Lolita and for Humbert.

Humbert is imprisoned for murdering Quilty, the man from the dark hotel porch who pursued Lolita and took her away from Humbert. He believes that he has vindicated Lolita by murdering Quilty. In prison, he writes his memoir to “save his soul,” saying he would sentence himself to thirty-five years for rape. As he writes the conclusion of his memoir, requesting it be published only after Lolita is no longer living, he thinks she is alive and well, married and mother of a child (though the reader knows from the foreward that Lolita died giving birth). Lolita has made it clear that she wants nothing to do with him, other than the money he can provide from her mother’s estate, but he can’t let go his obsession.

I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

Yes, he’s a creepy pedophile, but in his feelings for Lolita, he’s eloquent and persistent—Humbert Humbert—the poster boy for love eternal.

Lolita can be read also as a coming-to-age of postwar America and a profound, intricate wordplay of literary puns and extended metaphor. But it is the relationship between Humbert and Lolita that attracts and repels and stays in our memory.

Humbert’s love for Lolita is mired in delusion and illusion, elements which, to a degree, are contained in any passionate love. The memoir reveals the facts of Humbert’s fiction, leaving us to judge his obsessions and our own.

The Awakening: One Man’s Viewpoint

By Guest Blogger: Lee Stein

This post is from Lee Stein, a writer and participant in the Read to Write Workshop Sebastopol, 2010. Lee missed the first session where we discussed The Awakening by Kate Chopin. His viewpoint adds a valuable dimension to our otherwise all female class discussion. Thanks, Lee!

I just finished reading The Awakening. The pace of the book (apropos of New Orleans, of course) posed a bit of a reading hurdle and the writing style of late 19th or early 20th century writing, as well. However, once I got into it, I actually couldn’t wait to pick it up again. As a reader, Kate Chopin (ironic that she also makes several references to the musical Chopin) builds us up as we empathize with Edna as she in fact awakens from her routine world to a richer life, one filled with love, sensuality, her own choices, her apparent real development as an artist, her independence from what was the ball and chain of societal and marital expectations. 

 Of course as the reader, I could (almost) see the end coming, especially when Robert, who represents, even more than her husband, the “straight and narrow” of society. God forbid, Robert would say, that I involve myself with a married woman, no less than the wife of one of the scions of New Orleans business and society. I could never take the step to live with her without the proper social blessings, or run away with her. I would rather sacrifice my position (witness the note he leaves) than to actually live a life based on the life of the heart. This in fact seals Edna’s fate. 

I went back and looked at the first line, and Chopin cleverly introduces the theme of the book, in French, via the character of the parrot (who does in fact make another appearance). “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

The footnotes inform us: Go away, go away! For God’s sake, go away! That’s all right.”

At first this seems a bit silly for an introduction. But we see several elements where Edna strips her life in one way or another of the confining rules and expectations of society, even as she gives her heart to Robert. First, Robert leaves for Mexico. Then she leaves this idyllic summer getaway where she and Robert idle their time with one another as she falls in love to return to the city with the change of season with her children and unfullfilling, unloving husband. About the same time, she sends the children to their grandmother’s home in the country and her husband leaves for NY on an extended business trip. Somewhere in there, we have other leavings: She becomes involved (quasi-romantically) with Alcee in Robert’s absence, but she also leaves Alcee, or directs Alcee to leave her on several different occasions. She leaves her own family in a sense, refusing to attend her sister’s wedding and in a sense, leaves her father, who despite his visit to New Orleans, fails to persuade her to attend and in a sense leaves her family. She strips her self symbolically of all the trappings of life expected of a “gentile woman of New Orleans” to lead her own life as an artist, make her choices. Even her dearest friend Madame Ratignolle, who seems to have a borderline love affair with Edna (see the scene at the beach with the two of them), represents the exact opposite direction of Edna’s life. Her life is directed to caring for husband and children, minimal physical activity on her own behalf, and certainly, other than the more or less required music lessons, and apparently only a fair player at best, Madame, interestingly is always referred to formally, as Madame R… as though the author wants us to see her in this formal, structured way.

It is interesting that as a reader, I am falling in love or at least deeply admiring Edna’s steps out of convention into a true soul direction. And finally, after stripping herself of everything with which she starts the story, she literally strips naked on the beach and consciously swims out into the Gulf, ending her life because no male energy could meet her and fulfill her. Robert failed, despite her heart and soul being committed to him, Alcee never had a chance. Her husband’s idea was to simply keep plying her with bribes in the form of bonbons, crystal, wine or other gifts as versus truly loving her or making space for her. And so, really, she had no other avenue, in her world, so that ultimately, she wasn’t truly independent, but rather still crushed by her dependence on a deep and meaningful relationship.

Master Craft Juggling

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery


 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

Out of Africa: A Love Story

Out of Africa, a memoir by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is a love story. Reading her descriptive passages, I too fall head over heels with the Africa that exists in her memory. The first sentence is a simple declaration that sets up her longing: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

13 words with comma

I could go on an on about this sentence and what we can learn from it for our own writing. It has stayed in my mind since first reading it years ago—the gentle, sure voice, solid grounding, and ring “Ngong” that echos throughout the book. The sentence gives just enough information and makes us want to read on. It’s a master teacher, whether for writing memoir or fiction, so perfectly crafted that seeing the 13 words with comma again, years after finishing the book, catapults me into Dinesen’s feelings for the landscape, animals, people—even the air—as if I’d glimpsed the face of my own long-ago lover.

Let’s examine it:


Simple. Standing alone. Tells us we will hear the story from the person who experienced it.


Establishes the distance where we  join her in remembering and from where she will draw us into her love affair with her beautiful and haunting Africa. If she’d written “owned a farm,” the sentence would not have resonated with such personal loss.

a farm

Pages later, we learn that she “had six thousand acres of land, and had thus got much spare land besides the coffee-plantation [600 acres]. We learn it’s not the dairy farm she’d thought her husband was buying. It’s a lot of work. But as an opener, “a farm” sets a warm, intimate tone. We all have seen farms and know something about them. Her story is exotic in its depiction of place and people, but she begins with the familiar. It’s comforting.

in Africa

She drops a hint at the vast and exotic scope of her story. Africa is huge. Here’s her little farm, and now it’s overwhelmed by Africa. She takes us from the intimate to the vast and then with the comma, next, places us.


The sentence would work grammatically without this punctuation, but she needs it for her sake and for ours. The comma acts as a fence would, marking her territory.

at the foot

Elevations play an important part in the story—the altitudes of weather and social hierachy. Her farm may be at “the foot,” but still it’s at 6000 feet. The mountain above her is at 8000. The town of Nairobi is at 5000. “The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere.” This contrasts to the privileged European life she’d known. In Africa, she lives at high elevation but doesn’t flaunt her privilege.

of the Ngong Hills.

This literal “gong” sounds the exotic vocabulary and culture of her spiritual home. We can nestle here, inside the reverberation, and then roam over the hills to the next sentence—”The Equator runs across these highlands…” feeling again the vastness.

Declarative to descriptive detail

For the first 14 pages, she begins her paragraphs with simple declaratives about geography, landscape, and the farm, and then layers detail upon detail, each prose section depicted in words that want reading aloud.

Declarative: “The geographical position…” Detail: “and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle…”

Declarative:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.” Detail: “In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”

Declarative: “From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view…” Detail: “The brown desert is irregularly dotted with the little marks of the thornbushes, the winding riverbeds are drawn up with crooked dark-green trails; those are the woods of the mighty wide-branching Mimosa-trees, with thorns like spikes; the cactus grows here, and here is the home of the giraffe and the Rhino.”

Declarative: “Coffee-growing is a long job.” Detail: “the black-jack, which has long scabrous seed-vessels that hang on to your clothes and stockings.”

Declarative: “There are times of great beauty on a coffee-farm.” Detail: “with many hurricane lamps in the huge dark room of the factory, that was hung everywhere with cobwebs and coffee-husks, and with eager glowing dark faces, in the light of the lamps, round the dryer; the factory, you felt, hung in the great African night like a bright jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.”

Declarative: “Whenever you walk amidst the Kikuyu shambas…” (as if this was the most natural thing in the world that we all do!) Detail: “I used to shoot spurfowl in the sweet-potato fields round the squatters’ houses in the blue late afternoons, and the stock-pigeons cooed out a loud song in the high-stemmed, fringy trees, which were left over, here and there in the shambas, from the forest that had once covered all the farm.” (Whoa! Read that last sentence aloud a few times, take a spurfowl and two fringy trees, and call me in the morning. Whatever ails your writing will be much better.)

Lessons for writers

Love is in the details

How could we not love Dinesen’s Africa? Her Ngong Hills? And how could we not feel bereft in leaving, as she does at the end, and as we do when we close the book? The lesson here for writing our love stories is in the details and in her delivery of them. She gives them to us slowly—sensation by sensation. We see, hear, touch, taste, smell, using our whole bodies, becoming intimate with the ultimately incomparable, immeasurable love of our life.

There is also a romance in the memoir. You may be familiar with the characters played in the film by Meryl Streep (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) and Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton). I’m a fan, especially of Streep, but the movie is a different animal than the book. I don’t think an actor can say “fringy trees” and get away with it. But a writer can. And that’s one of the reasons we write and read—to walk amidst the shambas in our minds.

Have fun with language

And how about this one: Declarative: “Out on the Safaris…” Detail: “I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers advancing.”

Break the rules

Dinesen breaks “rules” you read about in writing craft books regarding using too many adjectives. It’s a caution to abide in most cases and to consider in all, but in her abundant stringing together of words, she brings to life her lover—the marvelous, incongruent, often absurd, demanding and memorable Africa, which I’ve never known but feel that I have through her writing.