Know your story: A look at Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Honestly, there’s not much “new” news to add about preparing for my writer’s residency, other than, to quote Dory from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” At least, on the writing front. However, there is another side to writing, and that is reading.

While toiling away on what passes for my current manuscript, I’ve thundered through an increasing number of books. Recently, I completed Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
cover of novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven was a book I added to my “to-read” list near the end of last year, when everyone and their grandmother was coming out with end-of-the-year best-of lists. I’m not sure what list I found Station Eleven on. It was an early list, that much I know, because after a while List Exhaustion set in and I couldn’t care less who ranked what where.

I realized, after I received my copy (the wait list at the library was over 200 people when I added my name) that I’d previously read one of Mandel’s other books, and I didn’t like it. The characters annoyed me. Fortunately, Station Eleven was different.

Station Eleven displays a gift for the revealing detail. The story is also good at answering only those questions that require an answer. I liked this book a lot, and my inner Nerd Writer was pleased, also. My inner Nerd Writer is on high alert ever since the residency news came in, and I’m happy to appease her whenever possible.

Choosing what questions to answer

In Station Eleven, Mandel created a “post-apocalyptic” setting. This is a novel about a not-too-distant future in which society has collapsed after a global pandemic. Making assumptions about a theoretical future can be either inspired or a disaster. Fantasy and scifi books by definition permanently must run this gauntlet. Mandel keeps the premise probable by doing the opposite of what most writers want to do: she refrains from going into (too many) details (too early).

Because of her setting, she has a large territory to explore: what aspects of the collapse of civilization will we learn about? One of the failings of writers in this position is often the summary statement (“and then, Russia fell, and when the satellites stopped working there was a long period of confusion…”). Instead, Mandel avoids giving a third person omniscient perspective — what I think of as the “newscaster view,” in which you can imagine a network talking head getting us up to speed. Instead, we learn about aspects of the collapse and the aftermath while we are meeting the characters. Mandel answers only the questions directly relevant to these people, and this saves us from falling into an encyclopedia.

The relevant detail

I’ve thought a lot lately about what goes into a vivid, submersive description. How can we show what our written world looks like, and the people in it? How much is enough, and how much is too much information? We’ve all seen those books where character descriptions run like a police profile: height, weight, eye and hair color. Mandel almost falls into the opposite trap: we get few physical character details, and by the end of the book, I confess I still wasn’t sure what some of the main characters looked like.

Oddly, that was mostly not a problem. Information about characters, their flaws, their preferences, are sprinkled throughout Station Eleven. The effect is cumulative: as we move forward through the story, we get to know more about the characters, just as we do when we meet another person repeatedly in real life. By the end of the novel, we know a lot about who these characters are (which I think is more important), and the contours of the world they live in.

Mandel does this by choosing precise details, and leaving out the rest. The trick is, I think, to be specific. Instead of saying “flowers,” say “tulips.” Instead of writing about every aspect of scene composition, pick out a handful of details that can stand in for the rest, the way a stage set can be minimal and suggestive at the same time. Station Eleven is full of selective detail. True, Mandel doesn’t veer into botany, but she does use specific nouns for her scenes and constructs a suggestive, rather than exhaustive, set.

Know your story

In the end, I think these two strengths come back to the basic premise, “Know your story.” Mandel can do more with less because she knows what her story is about. Station Eleven is a quiet book. The action and confrontation that drive the plot are conspicuous by their absence from the page — characters are witnesses, but the reader is not. This is both good and less so. On the one hand, Mandel runs the risk of losing the reader. On the other hand, explosive action is not what the book is about. Station Eleven is about what happens to the human heart and the human condition in unusual circumstances. I think Mandel stays true to that bedrock foundation. A worthwhile read.

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What do you nerd out about in the books you read?

A full moat versus a network of canals

The working (creative) writer: allocating resources for residency and beyond

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls... and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls… and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I grew up near the coast, the child of two beach lovers. My childhood summer memories are filled with sand and salt, the smell of sunblock and the roaring sound of the surf as it crashed ashore. I was especially devoted to two activities at the beach: spending as much time in the water as possible, which included boogie-boarding, getting knocked on my butt, and general frolicking; and building sand castles. The number one feature of any good sand castle, in my view, aside from perfectly shaped towers that didn’t immediately crumble and collapse when I removed the bucket, was the moat.

The moat had to be filled with seawater to be truly special and worthwhile; the more of the moat we could fill with water, the better the moat and the more successful the sand castle. You could fill up the moat by hand, running back and forth from the surf with a bucket, but this method was time-consuming, tiring, and in the final analysis, futile. The water would always drain away, through the sand at the bottom of the moat (nicely porous) and/or via the front of the moat crumbling in the direction of the sea. Much more satisfying was building your sand castle and moat in such a way that the sea itself would fill the moat for you — via incoming waves.

Building a sand castle so that the ocean fills the moat for you is an exercise in basic planning and engineering. The castle needs to be close enough to a certain percentage of waves so that the moat can fill, but far enough from the pounding surf to last (every castle eventually succumbs to the sea; the question is only when, and in terms of Child Time, “long” is a flexible concept). To do this, you need to take into account whether the tide is going out, or coming in, and whether you have sibling helpers or obstructionists, or if everyone is going competitively solo. You have to plan your resources: for instance, there are a finite number of buckets and shovels for creating towers and moving sand. You have to accept that some parameters are beyond the builder’s control (the surf; your siblings; people who walk around not paying attention).

The same can be true of preparing for a writer’s residency: planning and preparation meet resource considerations and the reality of limitations on the writer’s ability to control all circumstances.

Why my residency is like a sand castle

When I first realized that my residency was real — not only had I been accepted, but I would be able to go — I immediately thought about how to best use the time I had to prepare. So many thoughts and ideas around the residency swirled through my head, I embarked on a weekly blog posting commitment to address my personal experience and share information that could be useful to other writers. I jumped in without much forward planning but a lot of ambition — the equivalent of pouncing on the first sand castle site available on the shoreline, without considering the number one rule of real estate: location, location, location.

I also didn’t count how many shovels and buckets I had available, and I ignored the reality of other life circumstances that place limits on my time.

As a result I can see a gap now of four weeks since my last blog post. Dear reader, in all this time, I have been writing… a lot. I have been writing every day. I have pages and pages full of notes, queries to myself, scenes and expository sequences. I meet and then exceed my word count. My story is starting to knit together and thrive under my devoted attention. I didn’t so much forget about my blog commitment, as realize that I had a bigger, more important commitment to attend to first.

Which brings me to the moat

When designing a moat for your sand castle, you can go for simple, a ditch that surrounds the outside perimeter, or you can opt for a complex network of canals and tributaries, feeding one another from the main moat. I’ve seen people with gorgeous sand castle canals, forking networks around complicated series of turrets, sometimes with an inner moat as well as an outer one. I’ve tried to build a few of these myself.

The trouble with fancy canal systems is that they require much more, and more regular, water. I’m sure an engineer and math enthusiast could calculate water volume, but in practice the relative amount of water is the key. You are dealing with a structure perched at the edge of the incoming or outgoing tide. The water will drain away unless replenished. If you have a big, deep moat, you can get by with more infrequent waves. Complicated networks of canals require more regular feeding, and are subject to increased decay because of the destructive force of the incoming water.

That’s how I currently feel about focusing on my residency manuscript at the expense of weekly blog posts. The blog posts are the complicated network of canals that require regular feeding; they siphon off water (creative energy and time) from the larger project. If I can pour more energy, in a concentrated amount of time, into my manuscript, I am better off than diverting all my resources into a network of shallow canals that require greater upkeep but produce less lasting results.

I think this is only natural. Larger projects demand larger amounts of our time. We have to engage with them in a different way from smaller, bite-sized responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to make a commitment.

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When was the last time you gave yourself permission to focus on one big idea?

At Your Own Risk

This post continues with Week 5 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies (info on my own residency is in the sidebar to the right). I started at Week 1: Preparing, and am counting up. See also Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy, and Week 4: A good prompt is hard to find.

fenced in play area with sign Play At Your Own Risk

Procrastinators, beware! Writing exercises are risky business. CC image “Play at Your Own Risk” via Stephen Gadsby on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In science, you never ever call an experiment before all the results are in: not before you’ve concluded all the tests, counted and analyzed all the samples, and run the numbers through statistical software, after first reviewing any shortcomings in your method.

Likewise, you don’t “call” the end of a sports match before it’s over. We know too many stories of last-minute comebacks, of end-of-game collapses, to truly know what the results will be until after the clock has run down to zero.

However, I feel reasonably confident in making a few comments about the past four weeks of my experiment with writing exercises, although technically speaking, as I’m writing this, I am still in the midst of my fourth week. If I was a scientist, perhaps I would call these preliminary results, but I’m not a scientist. I’m a touchy-feely liberal artist, and the trend seems clear.

Writing exercises are sneaky bastards, and you should use them at your own risk.

Sneaky bastards

In ways both good and bad, writing exercises are deceitful little creatures, posing as one thing, though often showing up as another. For one, they are deceptively difficult to practice. Exercises are intentionally short and focused: write for five minutes. Write three paragraphs about your favorite breakfast cereal. In my case, write no more than 500 words, keeping your novel in mind. However, despite their brevity, I found myself often ducking the exercise, postponing when in the day I would write, and sometimes forgetting to write altogether.

My average was three exercises a week out of a five-day “work week” of Mondays through Fridays. Most of the time, I sat down to my legal notepad (I avoided working on the computer, because of fear of distraction) with a mental groan. Except in Week 4, where I am just shy of perfect and have experienced much less reluctance to take on the exercise, all week.

For another, writing exercises also pretend that they are simple creatures, with low standards for happiness and without ambition. Be warned, this is a lie. Like David up against Goliath, they pack a lot of punch and savvy for their small size. I found myself, in the latter half of the experiment, running up against my time and word constraint and ending the exercise before I ended the scene.

Despite all my best intentions to keep them hypothetical, they kept advancing my plot. Nasty, double-talking exercises!

Procrastinators, beware

Somewhere at the start of the third week, I had to concede that my writing exercises weren’t exercises anymore. They were still experimental, but they had shape-shifted, and now were scenes and fragments of scenes, important linkages in narrative, subtle lights on the motivations of a few key characters. I tried to call them exercises through Week 3, but I finally had to give up. I was writing. I was writing my novel.

Be warned: if you want to procrastinate, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you don’t feel like working on your story project, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you prefer to not learn something new (not always pleasant) about yourself or your characters or your writing habits, WRITING EXERCISES ARE NOT FOR YOU.

In conclusion

In conclusion, writing exercises can lead to writing.

I started the exercises four weeks ago as a way to stay in touch with my writing muscle while I did research for my writer’s residency. I projected that I’d be spending so much time looking up information, I would be in danger of losing touch with my story and my characters. In this sense, the experiment has been a success, because my characters and I are now VERY close.

In terms of providing a writing stopgap until proper writing could take place, this writing exercise experiment has been a FAILURE.

I have a writing habit now, and a minimalist but persistent word count I want to meet. My writing exercises ended up developing my story. I’ve done more writing on my novel since starting the exercises as a way to postpone working on my novel, than I had in the months before I started exercises. Stopgap, my foot.

Disclaimers: Due to the small sample size (N=1) and the abbreviated duration of this experiment, results cannot be definitively extrapolated to other members of the writing population. The prospective nature of this study makes statistical analysis tricky. However, my results show that writing exercises may in fact lead to a writing habit, and have demonstrated amplifying effects on story ideas in certain cases. Proceed at your own risk.

A good prompt is hard to find

This post continues with Week 4 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. See also Week 1: Preparing, Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, and Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy. I started at Week 1 and am counting up.

drawing of a turkey running away from Thanksgiving

Now that’s creativity! CC image “Turkey Escape” via Mark Ahlness on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever come across writing exercises or suggestions online, and roll your eyes?

If you’ve spent any time working through your own blocks, chances are you’ve acquainted yourself with writing resources and how-to guides, and found any number of writing prompts. They usually fall into one of two categories: a) I’ve read/done this before; and b) what am I, five?

Maybe that second one’s just me. I can get snarky when I’m feeling stuck.

The third category, c) suggestions that we haven’t seen before and that do stimulate our curiosity, are less common. Copy them down and save them somewhere, because they are GOLD.

I was recently reminded how hard good writing prompts are to find, when I started my writing exercise experiment two weeks ago (you can find more info under Week 2). In fact, the process was so annoying that I inadvertently came up with some of my own prompts.

I didn’t set out to write a how-to, a list, or to be helpful to anyone beyond myself, frankly… but there it is. If you have seen any of these elsewhere, have mercy on a writer, and keep me in the dark.

Keep your writing prompts handy

A major lesson I learned is to always have a store of writing prompts, techniques, and suggestions at the ready. When I started my first day of the writing exercise experiment, I ran into a problem. The problem — this should surprise exactly no one, and sadly did surprise me — was that I needed writing exercises to start with. I’d been under the impression that I had a few lined up, which turned out to be wrong.

Looking for writing exercises threatened to derail the experiment before I was able to start. I had set limits on my time and word count for the exercises knowing how easily I slide down the rabbit-hole and lose sight of the original goal. Right out of the gate, I proved myself and my precautions right.

Well, the horse was out of the barn. That first day, I settled for a thematic starting point as quickly as I could. The second day, I allowed myself to put together a short list, based on ideas I found from other writing sources. Emphasis on short. The second week, I allowed myself to devise my own prompts.

Super bonus points: I can use these newly-invented prompts for the second fortnight of writing exercises. Ha!

My primary focus was on exercises that allowed me to get to know my main characters. You could set up your prompts to help develop setting, theme, or another facet of craft. Some of my questions form a kind of “interview” with the characters; others give me alternate ways of playing with the material. I hope some may be useful to you.

Writing exercise prompts for characters

      1. Food. We can take this theme many different ways. I have a scene in a hospital, after a child is born, and I described the meal there. The neat result of this was the way my notes illuminated the setting, AND added to my understanding of the character.
      2. Nightmares. I’ve seen plenty of writing exercise suggestions that ask us to pursue our/our characters hopes, goals, and dreams, and I thought this would be much more fun. What terrifies your character? What does your character react to with disgust, revulsion, or otherwise find awful beyond words? Do they experience literal nightmares? What about?
      3. Shame. What was your character’s most embarrassing experience?
      4. Music. As with food, this can be taken in different directions. What is your character’s favorite music (if any)? What instrument would your character play? What if they played a different instrument? What if they were an instrument?

I also messed with techniques, because I like to jog myself out of my stylistic ruts.

Techniques to change up your writing exercises

      1. Reveal the answers to any of the above (or other) questions using dialogue alone. No descriptors or actions, though tags (he said, she said) are allowed.
      2. Write (or re-write) a scene as a play or screenplay (dialogue and stage directions). This is useful if you find yourself stuck creating action in the narrative.
      3. Your character is being interviewed for the local newspaper. Write the article that results from that interview.
      4. Your character has won an award. What for? Describe the presentation/acceptance of the award.
      5. Write about your character as though they were the opposite sex. To make this extra difficult, choose one scene where they MUST be female or male (because we are confined by biological realities), and change the gender. Don’t just switch pronouns! Be honest with this and you may weirdly discover a whole other character (not to mention plot)!

My new problem is that now that I’ve gotten started on this meta-writing path, I’m in danger of developing so much new material, I already want to pretend the revision process does not exist.

What is your favorite way to stoke the creative fires?

In defense of obstinacy

This post continues Week 3 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. Find other posts here and here. I am counting up towards the residency.

tree trunk bearing sign saying "there is a tree behind you and it will not move for you"

CC image “Mission San Miguel: Where the Trees are Obstinate” via J Maughn on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. Obstinacy is a word with low approval ratings. Merriam-Webster defines it as the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness; the quality or state of being difficult to remedy, relieve, or subdue.

People in my family are obstinate. Sometimes they look like they are engaging in one-upmanship: I can be more obstinate than you! I know a lot about obstinacy on a personal level.

I’m working on acquiring obstinacy on an artistic level.

Obstinacy among artists isn’t always highly prized by their colleagues. Audiences are happy to consume the fruits of creative obstinacy, but that doesn’t make them want to hang out with obstinate artists.

What sets artists apart

According to a Norwegian study, the artistically inclined differentiate themselves from others by being less “sociable” and more emotionally “unstable,” among more virtuous descriptors, such as associative thinking, desiring originality, being inwardly motivated, and ambition (see a short article on this discussion here).

Emotionally unstable? I’d say this is where the legacy of famous “wild” or “tortured” artists has left its mark: Hemingway, Plath, Faulkner, Woolf, Van Gogh, and so on. Look up “tortured artist” and voila! — find lists and discussions of writers, poets, and painters who had known addictions and known or speculated mental illnesses.

Then we have the sociability issue (I’ll excuse you if you read this as anti-social). In fact, what the article defines as low sociability is a tendency to be “inconsiderate” and “obstinate.”

There’s that word again.

Why being obstinate is an advantage

Frankly, I think obstinacy is under-rated. When faced with a long and daunting task (like writing a book, or pursuing any kind of creative career, for example), it pays to be obstinate. When you need to finish a project, it pays to close the door behind you and keep other people out. The opposite of obstinate is “irresolute.” Yeah, that sounds like a bonus! Another word for irresolute is “indecisive.” Definitely my go-to person. Want to accomplish a goal? Talk to someone who’s obstinate.

Other antonyms for “obstinate,” according to thesaurus.com, include: obedient, pliant, soft, submissive, surrendering, and yielding.

Can you imagine a list of more passive adjectives? I have a hard time myself, and I’m an associative thinker (rimshot). None of these adjectives is an agent of their own destiny. They only want to sit around and be loved.

By contrast, synonyms for “obstinate” include: headstrong, steadfast, tenacious, dogged, indomitable, persistent, relentless, self-willed, strong-minded, and unflinching.

Yes, I am cherry-picking: if you look up “obstinate” you will find plenty of unsavory synonyms. My point is that we overlook the valuable aspects of obstinacy in favor of the more socially “acceptable” modes of being. Obstinate people aren’t perfect, but they DO stand a better chance of accomplishing their goals.

They are agents of their own narrative.

Obstinacy and getting past artistic adversity

Think of Stephen King and his spike. How many rejections did he accumulate before ever being published? Now he is a by-word for literary success. He didn’t get there by surrendering and being pliant.

I’ve wanted to do a writer’s residency for years, but I was always afraid to apply because I didn’t think I had the credentials. Here’s a secret, though (and I’m working on grasping its slippery tail every day): you get credentials by going out and getting credentials.

I’m going to finish this project by being obstinate. I might include some of those lovable adjectives in my book. When I’m done, they might even be me. For a while.

Join me — discover your own artistic obstinacy. Feel free to tell me about it. I’ll celebrate you.