Fifth Thursday roundup–a lists of blog posts in one spot–August 1-January 28:
Fifth Thursday roundup–a lists of blog posts in one spot–August 1-January 28:
Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby is a collection of short stories that each have a fantastic element. Some are completely different from everyday life (“Sales“), some could be happening just down the street (“Elephant and Boy“), and the rest land somewhere in between. When reading the stories set in alternate realities I paid special attention to how the characters dealt with their surroundings because their environment is so foreign to me. There are many perils in creating such interesting worlds, but Budnitz handles it well. Of all the stories in Nice Big American Baby, I found “Visitors” to be the most powerful. The eerie situation with the narrator’s parents is juxtaposed against the trivialities of everyday life which makes the story feel more realistic, tense, and believable.
In “Sales” a family of husband, wife, and husband’s younger sister live in a world suffering from constant dust storms so fierce that the local kids can ride them like waves in the ocean. There are also hordes of travelling salesmen who move between towns and cities and who occasionally stop at the family’s house and end up captured by the husband. Budnitz walks a fine line in “Sales“. The setting needs to be vivid and interesting, but it needs to serve a purpose beyond existing for the sake of being fascinating. However, if the writer dwells too much on the minute details of the setting then they can get lost in the world they created and lose sight of the actual story. Just as Aimee Bender, in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, uses strange circumstances and characters to emphasize what the actual story is, so too must Budnitz not focus too much on her setting and instead use it to enhance the story. Also, in setting “Sales” in such a unique environment, the author has to be cautious when creating the characters. Since these characters live in such an isolated world and their (seemingly) main form of contact with others is through these salesmen the characters can’t be too knowledgeable about the world beyond their borders. It would be a completely different story if the husband was a renaissance man and knew how to build the windmill or if the sister was formally educated and knew about the development of the human body. Budnitz uses this setting to make a story about living in isolation and being stuck with what little knowledge, correct or not, the family members have.
“Visitors” was the story in Nice Big American Baby that stuck with me the longest. I grew attached to the characters and I was happily carried along for the ride all the way to the end. Budnitz fills the story with tension and it works well. She juxtaposes the phone scenes, which are actively tense and always leave the reader wanting more, with the scenes between Meredith and Parrish, which are quieter and have a different, softer kind of tension. In the phone scenes the reader is worried about the safety of the parents; in the domestic scenes the reader worries about the emotional health of Meredith. Her parents are in dire situations, yes, but by shifting the focus to the couple at the apartment, Budnitz makes the reader feel what Meredith must feel as she has to wait through these indeterminable stretches of time between phone calls. The dialogue between Meredith and her mother also works to heighten the tension. They don’t always answer the questions posed to them, in a manner true to life, and instead change the subject or mention information only tangentially related to the topic. On page 83, the parents encounter a roadblock and the mother mentions that they are in a rural area. “‘Rural areas? Where are you?’ / ‘Here comes your father.'” (83). The mother doesn’t answer the direct question, instead shifting the conversation and frustrating Meredith (and the reader, but in a good way) with her deliberate avoidance of the question. It’s a natural part of conversation, and it works well in “Visitors“.
Nice Big American Baby is a terrific collection of short stories that kept me reading from start to finish. Budnitz balances strange environments and actual story well, and she is able to use those settings to tell realistic yet fantastic tales.
Budnitz, Judy. Nice Big American Baby. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2005.
You know how when you’ve had a really long week, or just a really long day, or it was just really, really hard to get out of the bed, and you’re sitting in front of your computer screen or your notebook looking down at your fingers on the keyboard or your pencil, and they just. won’t. move? Yeah, you do. All writers have that feeling every now and again.
I don’t call it writer’s block; I call it The Fog or maybe The Mist. Oooooh. Spooky. Your brain feels cloaked in cheesecloth. Why cheesecloth? I don’t know. It’s the image that came to mind. The problem is unwrapping your brain. Clearing The Fog. When my brain is covered in cheesecloth, I like to go to my craft books. And my favorite craft book for cheesecloth removal is The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.
Recently, I was trying to write a draft that evoked a sense of place. It sounds like it should be easy to put something down on paper about a place that you have experience with. Your childhood home, your kitchen, the alien landing field down the road; but that day, nothing was happening. I turned to the chapter titled “Poetry of Place” and flipped through it. I found the following “idea for writing”:
“In ‘The Palms,’ [Charlie] Smith begins with a sort of cinematic overview. Write a poem about some journey you took in the past – a road trip, hike, business trip, family vacation. Describe the particular place where you stopped off, broke down, or visited. Try to make the scene evocative of whatever your mood was at the time. At the end of the poem, see if you can do what Smith does – zoom in for a closeup” (79).
Not only does this book give great writing prompts and ideas for writing, but it provides examples of poems that use those ideas. After reading both the prompt and Smith’s poem, I was able to put down a draft about my first trip from LA to Virginia many years ago, and I was pretty satisfied with that draft. Of course, revision is in the near future, but the draft is there.
In addition to offering ideas for writing and examples of poems in chapters such as “Death and Grief” and “The Shadow,” Addonizio and Laux discuss the nuts and bolts of poetry like terminology and traditional forms, and they offer advice about “the writing life.” If you need a boost in your writing day, or you simply need help de-fogging your brain, this craft book is an excellent place to start.
Addonizio, Kim and Dorianne Laux. The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. New York: WW Norton, 1997.
by Rhonda Browning White
In order to move forward in a story, we must sometimes look backward. Readers need a certain amount of information to understand why a character acts the way she does, why she feels the way she does, and what makes her want to overcome the obstacles in her way. The trouble with backstory (aside from the fact the MS Word doesn’t recognize it as a real word), is that it stops the forward motion of your story. And if you’re not moving forward, well . . . you’re backing up. Readers want forward motion. We want momentum. We want action.
Fortunately, Sonja Condit has mastered the art of cleverly sprinkling backstory through her first novel, Starter House. Like salt and pepper (and a healthy touch of cayenne), Condit seasons her story by parceling out crucial background information—revealing it in thought, in action, and in dialogue—throughout the novel in brief snippets that never stop the forward motion of the story. In fact, the addition of backstory in Starter House actually serves to build ever-increasing tension and move the plot forward.
Starter House tells the story of Lacey and Eric, who seek and purchase Lacey’s dream home, which turns out to be haunted by an ominous presence only Lacey can sense. Condit immediately anchors readers in time and place and lets us know what her main characters want (the perfect house), while simultaneously providing crucial backstory—on the first page.
“It was already June, and the Miszlaks still hadn’t found a house. Eric wanted guarantees: no lead, asbestos, mold, termites, crime, or trouble. Lacey wanted triangles. ‘Triangles,’ Eric said, as if he’d never heard of such a thing. . . he with his binder of fact sheets organized by street name, she with her sketchbook, outside of their one hundred and eighth house. . . . She wished she could say, This is the one, I love it, for Eric’s sake. . . . They’d had enough of square houses, bland rooms no better than the motel’s she’ grown up in and the apartments they’d lived in together, houses with memory. They couldn’t live that way anymore, with the baby coming. ‘Triangles,’ she said, shaping one in the air with her hands. ‘Gables. Dormer windows’” (pg. 1).
We’re moving forward. We’re house-hunting. We’re feeling frustrated. As readers, we’re caught up in the forward motion (the action), the emotion (the frustration of looking at our hundred and eighth house), and yet we’re learning about Lacey’s and Eric’s personalities (he’s detailed, she’s a dreamer) and their past, through delicately sprinkled backstory. And all this happens on the first page. We haven’t lost momentum, because Condit has effectively parceled out tidbits of our characters’ pasts; the past months of house-hunting, their early cohabitation, Lacey’s childhood, even her recent pregnancy. And not once does Condit use flashback.
Also important in revealing backstory is withholding background information. Yes, you can pull a reader deeper into a story by concealing the past, while providing hints or glimpses of its importance. Condit subtly utilizes this technique, building immediate tension in the story, when Realtor CarolAnna Grey hesitates to sell the house to the couple. “Is there something wrong with this house,” Eric said (pg 6). The Realtor changes the subject, continuing to steer the couple toward other housing options, even telling the seller, Harry Razocky, “Harry, they don’t want it. . . . It’s not right” (pg 7).
Why don’t they want it?—as readers, we already know Lacey loves it. What is the Realtor hiding from them? Will they buy it? And more importantly, how can you as a reader stop turning pages, when a skilled author like Condit provides (and hides) just the right amount of spicy backstory to keep you intrigued? Simple answer: you can’t. You’ll have to read the rest of this riveting story to discover the answers to these spellbinding questions. As writers, we can strive for nothing more important than to entertain our readers in such a compelling, page-turning manner.
Condit, Sonja. Starter House. HarperCollins, 2013. Print.
Sonja is well known to Why The Writing Works–she’s a fellow graduate of Converse’s low-residency MFA program.
WTWW: Starter House is a ghost story with a twist. Your short story “Medora” also deals with the supernatural. What draws you to this type of writing?
Sonja: I think we are all strongly influenced by whatever we read before we were twelve. I had a huge collection of books about folklore and mythology: Greek, Roman, and Norse myths and legends, a complete Grimm including some horrible stories you don’t usually see (like “The Jew Among Thorns” and “Mary’s Child” for example–both very nasty), and the Dover reprints of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. Lang’s collection came from all over the world, and it had beautiful illustrations. So I learned all these archetypes before I learned anything else.
WTWW: For Starter House, the trigger for the novel was, as stated in this interview, a rental house you knew of that seemed to frequently change renters. Where else do you find triggers for stories, and do you keep a list or journal of your ideas?
Sonja: Every now and then, which means once a year for the last four years, I do a thirty-day project. That means I have to write down the idea for a story every day for thirty days. There are so many ideas in my thirty-day files, I could never write them all in a hundred years! And I have another one scheduled for March. Also, when I’m in the middle of a project, related ideas pop into my head all the time, most often when I’m doing something else. Just after an orchestra rehearsal is a great time for ideas.
WTWW: “Medora” is a fantastic short story. What was the trigger for this tale of an old woman and her dealings with Death?
Sonja: Medora’s life is, to a surprising extent, nonfiction. It’s based on some incidents from the lives of my great-grandmother’s sisters, mostly the youngest sister, Maude, who really was named by the census taker because her family had run out of names. That’s what happens when you have a Texas family with far too many daughters, two or three names per daughter. The two sisters before Maude were Johnnie and Tommie. And she and her first husband really did conceal all their assets from unsavory debt collectors by selling everything and buying diamonds; I inherited one of the rings, a small one, Art Deco platinum with tiny stones. The rest of the set is lost, sadly. Then the idea of Death as a human-like character, a person you can bargain with, goes right back to some stories in Grimm.
WTWW: What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Sonja: A good writing day would be one in which I have six hours of uninterrupted time, plenty of coffee, and somebody else cleans my house. That never happens. A typical writing day is, I plan out the day and write down my goal, and at the end of the day I look back and have accomplished about half what I intended. The goals are big, though, so it works out. I’m near the end of a second draft and today my goal is twenty pages.
Read Sonja’s short story Medora here
Another article here:
Read several chapters here
“He rode his bike along the sidewalk to the edge of Eric and Lacey’s new property, still marked with a row of orange survey flags—he rang the bike’s round bell once, ting, and then turned and rode to the to the row of flags on the other border. He braked by jamming his heels into the sidewalk and rang the bell again. Ting.” (14).
The detail in this paragraph shows a normal little boy, riding his bike along the sidewalk in front of Lacey Mislak’s new home. He’s being a pest, riding along the sidewalk while Lacey and her husband Eric are trying to move in. Nothing out of the ordinary here—the details show a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in any suburb in the country in August. But at the end of the chapter, another scene. Eric and Lacey have had an argument, and Eric has driven off. The little boy is still riding his bike up and down the sidewalk, turning around each time he reaches the property line in a routine that never varies. Lacey, lying down underneath a shade tree, is struck how the routine never varies: “How did he do it exactly the same every time? More and more Lacey felt she was listening to a recording, and not a real event. If she opened her eyes—which she would not do, nothing could make her look—she would see the sidewalk empty except or a boom box playing a CD on infinite repeat: Ting. Ting.” (16)
Is the little boy real or not? If not, why does he cause her to drop the box of dishes she’s carrying, shattering almost everything inside? If so, why doesn’t Eric reprimand him for being in the way instead of snapping at Lacey?
This isn’t the first time in the story Lacey has seen children that weren’t there. When they were first looking at the house—which was in a state of renovation—“Lacey could see her someday children there. They would sit on that round step in the sunshine. She saw a boy folding paper airplanes, which he meant to throw from a bedroom window. She saw a girl leaning against the post with her head bent over a book. The girl tucked a lock of hair behind her ear…Someday, here. They had chosen their home in this house.” (5)
Using solid details, Condit creates a strong story in which the unseen is as real as the seen. Starter House is a ghost story, but one anchored in reality because of Condit’s use of detail (as well as a solid, scary story) that leaves no doubt in a reader’s mind Lacey is experiencing two different worlds—and one of those worlds has a troubled little boy, capable of causing terrible things.
Condit’s use of detail continues to draw the reader deeper into this ghost story, turning up the tension through the use of details—“She could feel it already, a sense of gathering in, of presence, the feeling her senses had interpreted as darkness when she first entered the house. It wasn’t darkness, though she couldn’t see through it. It was more like pressure, breathlessness, as if the air had curdled into some denser substance. Like souring milk, or scabbing blood. Drew was watching.” (120).
Contrast Drew riding his bike in front of the house to the Drew drawn into the kitchen by the smell of baking cookies. The contrast between the two is accomplished by using detail that hooks the senses.
Starter House is a ghost story that is also a suspense novel, with a surprising plot twist. What drew me into the novel, and kept me there, (it kept me up until 2am finishing it) was Condit’s use of detail that anchored me in the novel , causing me to care about what happened to the characters.
Read more here.