Tag Archives: fiction

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 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?

My nonfiction is better than your fiction, and other absurdities

girl sitting in a bright room, surrounded by stacks of books

CC image “books” courtesy of Porsche Brosseau on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you, whether in school now or remembering what it was like to be in school, ever caught yourself scratching your head about some piece of information you were required to learn, memorize, practice, and regurgitate, which you questioned would ever have any use in your future life?

I know I have.

A little while ago, I stumbled across a strange statement that reminded me of that feeling. It was a minimum suggested benchmark for reading: by the 12th grade, so the new wisdom, teenagers should be reading at least 70% nonfiction work.

What?

I’d never seen a number like this before, and yet the topic was thrown out there like a well-known and recognized quantity. Where the hell did they come up with this figure?! And whose recommendation was this, anyway?

I’ve been a bookworm all my life. For as long as I’ve been aware of my reading — people commented often — I’ve also been aware of how people were bemoaning the loss of reading among the young. I’ve been hearing about this, I feel like, forever. Kids are watching too much TV, they’re playing too many video games, et cetera. When I saw the seventy percent figure, my first reaction was of disbelief — wait, someone cares about the proportion of fiction to nonfiction reading? — and the second was: Well, isn’t it great if kids are reading at all??

I had to get to the bottom of this idea — it was so weird. Who cared? Who were these people and where did this recommended minimum come from?

The answer was: the Common Core.

If any of you reading this are teachers or know a teacher personally, you probably got to this answer well ahead of me. The new Common Core standards for education emphasize nonfiction reading from the early ages of grammar school, and recommend proportions of nonfiction to fiction reading for each grade level. They are, as one article I read put it, the reason why educators “are extolling the importance of factual, informational reading” far and wide.

But why would they care about nonfiction reading, as opposed to reading in general? Well, the short answer is: the system.

College, and then the workplace.

In my pursuit to understand the discussion about nonfiction reading goals for students, I read quite a few scholarly articles, by educators and cognitive scientists, specifying what scientific research says with regard to reading, and reading nonfiction in particular. Almost in chorus — 99.9% of what I’ve read and the search results that turn up online — the results focus on getting into college and then parlaying that into the workplace.

Yes friends, once again, this all boils down to a culture in which the value of a proposition rests on how well you can measure it.

Is the only reason to read nonfiction to achieve a certain score on certain tests, and be accepted by certain institutions (that may or may not have anything to do with the material you are reading)? Is the only value and rationale to further my career? Can there be no other reason to want to read nonfiction?

Books — nonfiction books — have no artistic or cultural value?

As a confirmed fiction nut from earliest days, I take issue with this. Nonfiction books are replete with amazing information: also stories! One of my favorite books this year was a nonfiction book: The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. The discovery of the ecosystems that are redwood trees reads like a thriller, and is full of scientific information as well. If you’re not into trees, check out this article from a college-age student about her discovery of nonfiction texts for other examples of how cool nonfiction can be.

I found one divergent view — an English teacher who advocated for nonfiction reading, who spoke about the resistance of other English teachers to what they saw as an assault on literature and literature education. His point, as I see it, is that we can only develop and make use of skills and information that we are exposed to. I agree; here is a person after my own heart. He’s talking about people, not numbers.

Saying nonfiction is necessary because it prepares us for college is kind of an idiotic justification. We choose what to value at the college level, just as we choose what to value at work. The whole argument is self-referential, because we can change the parameters at any time (and often do). The paradigm advocates standardization and the institutional over the fulfilling and the individual. My eyes are already glazing over.

For me, the value of nonfiction, just as with the value in all reading, lies in critical and independent thinking, analysis, and adaptability, not to mention fun — none of which, I would argue, is embodied in a standardized (hello!) test. Harping on a 70% baseline guarantees none of those skills or the desire to pursue them.

We need a place to start, from which we can go out into the world under our own strength. We need a way to choose and embody individual value. Not a comprehensive way to become a cookie cutter person. And for that, we need to find reading that is interesting and engaging to us… whatever guise it comes in; whether and how much of it can be classified as “nonfiction” or not.

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What’s your favorite type of reading?

Book bullies: When that novel just won’t leave you alone

black and white of child throwing a tantrum

I don’t wanna read this book! Don’t make me! — CC image “Tantrum” courtesy of demandaj on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve picked up a book that I’m beginning to find intrusive.

This book is really getting in the way. I see it there, on the floor next to my bed, with the bookmark sticking out of its spine, and narrow my eyes at it. I know for a fact that beguiling cover is only a smokescreen for total entrapment. If I start reading again, I’ll be unable to stop for at least a few chapters, and then what’ll I do? Not much else with the rest of my day, that’s what!

Plus, I’ll get agitated. Terrible things are happening to the main character all the time. The book thinks it can fool me, because it starts out with a backdrop of lyrical words and natural beauty. Then it likes to hammer me and tear my guts out, before sending a few more soothing droplets of peace my way.

Keeping this book next to my bed is a bad idea. I want to know what is happening next, but on the other hand, I also want to sleep. I’ll lie down and get all cuddly with my book, knowing I’ll keep turning pages until the next emotional crash. At which point I will lie awake, fretting about the uncertain (fictional) future, as emotionally invested in the characters as if we were related.

I was browsing at the library (always a dangerous pastime) when I found the book, although I should only have been returning items and rushing out before my car meter expired. Intrigued by the cover and the title, I checked out the jacket flaps. Then I started reading the first chapter. I have a rule of thumb which says, if I am standing in a bookstore or a library for more than 10 minutes reading a book I only thought about “checking out” briefly, I need to pick up a copy for myself to read at home. The rule applied, so I took this dangerous novel back to my place with me, little knowing the emotional time-bombs it was going to set off in my psyche.

I knew the author, too; I’d read some of her short prose. That was destructive, also. In a beautiful way. This should have warned me, had I paid closer attention to the byline. But I was snookered by my own oversight.

Ooh, shiny pretty cover design!

I’ve had the book for a couple of weeks now — I usually read MUCH faster than this — and have made my painful way to the final third of the story. I had another book from the library waiting for me to read — the new Khaled Hosseini, which, since it was new, was only being lent for a limited time and I wasn’t allowed to renew it — which I didn’t get to read AT ALL because of Book Number One.

I had to return a book without reading it.

That never happens.

But, Alex, you might point out. All of the characteristics of the book you are complaining about — these sound like GOOD things. And you’d be right, of course. Don’t all of us want to create a world that’s so real it rivals the tangible surroundings of our readers? Don’t we all yearn to create characters who haunt our readers just like they haunt us? Don’t we all want our prose to be described by adjectives that we synonomize with “beautiful”?

Now, I like immersive fiction. After all, that’s kind of the point. I just like to be the one in charge, and right now, I’m not.

Book bully.
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When was the last time a book grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and dragged you kicking and screaming? Share in the comments!

That’s exactly what I mean. Literally.

Creative ways of being totally factual with language

cat making a funny sneezing face

I literally don’t know what you’re talking about. — Image Silly Rus’ courtesy of GloriaGarcia on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Kids are amazingly literal when they are small. We have to be careful how we phrase what we say to them, lest we be taken exactly at our word.

At a certain age, I learned to use literal to my advantage. For instance, when my friend T and I were caught playing on the furniture, I exclaimed: “But we weren’t jumping ON the beds!  We were jumping OFF them!” This was literally true: we were using the bed as a launching pad for tumbling routines on the floor. I was very proud of myself for not lying and felt very smart (see here for other ways I am smart and self-aggrandizing).

Another time, when T was at my house for a sleepover, we had gotten up early before everyone else, but I didn’t want them to know. When I heard the creak of the floorboards above us that indicated someone was awake and aware, I told her to lie down real quick on the living room floor. She had no idea what I was talking about, but she did lie down, and so did I. We paused for a second, and I popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “Okay,” I announced. “Now if anyone asks us, we’ve JUST GOTTEN UP.”

T thought this was so hilarious she still tells the story now, decades later.

The same interpretation is at work in bad translations. Taking every word — literally and individually — and replacing it with the closest possible counterpart in the other language is a recipe for Japanese English translations. Okay, so that was a low blow. But can you imagine translating the following literally? “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” How about: “waiting for the other shoe to drop”?

A good translation is nothing less than a kind of re-writing, a re-imagining of the work. Translation is poetry in motion. No language has an exact one-to-one vocabulary correspondence to any other language.

The literal trailers found on YouTube play on this concept (search for the movie of your choice along with the words “literal trailer” and prepare to be bemused). The trailers are a kind of spoof in which sequences from Hollywood films are shown without their soundtrack, while a narrator “sings” a description of exactly what is visible on-screen. Closed-captioning accompanies the text. My favorites include the trailers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Twilight. Stories become sublimely ridiculous when literal-ness is taken to this logical extreme.

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What about you? Have you on occasion played literally with the truth? Did you create good entertainment value with this technique? Please share — I’d love to hear more stories about the literal use of language!