Monthly Archives: January 2011

Making Metaphor

First of all, very glad to even be able to type the word “metaphor” today. On Saturday, I poured a very full glass of water directly into the keyboard of my shiny new laptop. It was mostly fine, but not all of the keys recovered. I had to spend the next 24 hours using the cut and paste function whenever I need an “m” or an “n”. Needless to say, that got old pretty fast, so I walked it into the Apple store, saying, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

But on to metaphor. I think the best metaphors are the ones that do a thousand things at once. The best way to explain this is probably by example. So here are a couple of examples of metaphors that work brilliantly:

  • From Benjamin Percy’s Refresh Refresh: “a no-neck linebacker with teeth like corn kernels and hands like T-bone steaks.” That’s a lot of information and description packed into a slim 13 words. “Corn kernels” not only tells us about the size and shape of the linebacker’s teeth, but also their color. “Corn kernels” also implies something soft, like maybe his teeth are rotten. “T-bone steaks” likewise gives me a sense of size and shape, but also density and weight. It casts the linebacker’s fists as being dumb or without agency, just pieces of meat. And both together tell us a fair bit about the narrator, as well as the person he’s describing. Narrators should always use descriptions that are within the realm of their experiences. From this line, I glean that this narrator is a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy. I feel like I know a little bit about what he eats, and can extract from that some information about social standing, income, etc.
  • From “Kavita Through Glass” by Emily Ishem Raboteau: “The pieces of colored glass were smooth and flattish and oblong, shaped like teardrops roughly the size of robin’s eggs.” Again, “the size of robin’s eggs” does not just tell us about the size, but also shape and texture and fragility. This image combined with “teardrops” makes me think of the color blue. “Teardrops” implies that they are translucent and glassy. It also impacts the mood of the piece, bringing in a sense of sadness.

I could go and on, but I think you get the idea. Good metaphors do a lot of work for the little space they take up on the page. The other side of this, of course, is that the least successful metaphors are the ones that do nothing. I will occasionally come upon a draft that has a line like, “It sounded like a thousand Cheerios being flung forcefully against a trampoline.” I don’t know about you, but I have absolutely no idea what that sounds like. Rather than doing the one thing that metaphor sets out to do (give me a sound image), it instead obfuscates the tenor even more. I now need another metaphor to explain the metaphor meant to explain the original sound!

So take your cues from the authors above. Never limit yourself to illuminating just one aspect of the thing you’re describing. Instead, make your metaphors work hard and save yourself some precious real estate.

Shifting the Discussion

So, yes, there is a post missing from this blog. If you’ve been here recently, you know what I’m talking about: I read a story online that seemed very similar to one of my own, and expressed my feelings about the experience. I did not think (and still don’t) that I was out of line with what I wrote. I shared my impressions and feelings and I stand by those. But, as tends to happen on the interwebs, things got a little twisted around and I don’t think the original intention of my post was clear enough.

That said, I think this has sparked some wonderful conversation and I’d love for that to keep going. So let’s shift the discussion. As many people have said, we all “borrow” from writers we admire and I’d like to keep talking about that, regardless of whether something was borrowed from me. So, how does borrowing work? When does it not work? What’s okay to “borrow” and what isn’t?

When I was teaching myself how to write stories, I would look at a story I admired and make a list of its scenes. Scene 1: Husband and wife argue about something they’re going through. Scene 2: Husband at work. Scene 3: Husband and wife having dinner. And so on. Then I would write my own story with a different plot, different characters, different language, and a different “point”, but the same kinds of scenes. Of course, none of those stories saw the light of day, but that kind of direct imitation exercise was crucial in helping me learn the rhythm and pacing of a short story.

Now when I “borrow” from other writers it’s on a much more abstracted level. Maybe I’ll learn a different kind of metaphor, or realize something new about dialogue beats. I will take the thing apart in my head and put it back together again, figuring out how it works.

There are still lots of kinds of writing that I would like to learn to do well. I would love to figure out the lyric essay and what makes it tick. I’ve never really nailed the “250 words and under” arena of short-short story writing. What about you all? How do you learn a new genre of writing?

Writers’ Block and Self-Hypnosis

Because I live in the shadow of the eternal fear that I have nothing original to say, I did a quick Google search for “writing and self-hypnosis” before I wrote this post. I was surprised to find many, many web-sites hocking books and audio tapes and CDs, etc., all designed to help you use self-hypnosis to get past your writer’s block. While I certainly think there’s validity to this, I also think that we writers have been doing it on our own for a long time now. So here are my thoughts on self-hypnosis (for free!).

Let me start by saying that I do not believe in writers’ block. One of my first writing teachers, Maureen McHugh, gave me this brilliant piece of advice: “Writers’ block is not the feeling that you have nothing to write. It is the feeling that everything you write will be complete and utter shit. You have to give yourself permission to write some shit.” And I do. A lot.

When my students come to me and tell me that they’re blocked, I pass on Maureen’s advice. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes the student stares back at me with a look like a confused golden retriever. It is in these moments that I unleash the wisdom of self-hypnosis.

If you want to be a writer, half the battle is learning about your process and then exploiting that knowledge. I tend to work best when I have limited time. If I have the whole day to write, I feel too much pressure to use it all and end up doing nothing. But, if I only have forty-five minutes before I have to go to a meeting, I can almost always bang out 500 words. Now that I’m on fellowship and I have all the time in the world to write, I knew I was in danger of suffocating under all those hours. So I’ve built myself a limit. I go to my office from 12-2 every day and that’s when I write. It works great for me. And, on the occasions when I get swept up in what I’m doing, I write all night long.

Routine is a key part of self-hypnosis. Now, after several months of this routine, when I get into my office at 12, sit at my desk, and open my document, the words just come. This is because I’ve told my brain, “When I get in here, it’s time to work,” just like you tell your body, “When I get in bed, it’s time to sleep.” If you can’t write at the same time every day, try writing in the same place. If that’s not possible, there are other ways to trigger self-hypnosis. You can try always writing in the same sweatshirt or using a travel size bottle of perfume or cologne to create an olfactory trigger wherever you are. Some writers pair music with specific projects, switching from one playlist to another when they’re working on a story vs. a novel.

It also helps to keep track of your weird compulsions and use them to your advantage. For example, I have terrible vision, so I always set my screen to 166% zoom when I’m writing. But when I’m reading student work, I don’t do this. This way, just by looking different, my word documents themselves help trigger my productivity. Some writers only write on legal pads, or with certain pens, or while they’re drinking tea, or when they’re barefoot. Find whatever strange thing you’re already doing and make it work for you.

If this all sounds a little weird, that’s because it is. It totally is. But it also really works, especially if you often find yourself feeling blocked. If you have an example of self-hypnosis that works for you, leave it in the comments! Maybe it’ll help somebody else, too.

A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Poetry

I consider myself to be primarily a prose writer, but I have dabbled a bit in poetry. It’s fun. It’s short. And publishers can fit more of it on the same number of pages, so I’ve found it to be easier to market (not “easy,” just “easier”). Plus, it’s good to be versatile: Sometimes something will “come to you” as a poem. When it does, you want to be able to write it.

Consider the following to be my poetry-writing cheat sheet. Obviously, it takes more than this to write a really stellar poem: inspiration, talent, magical puppy-bunnies. But I’ve found I can write a pretty decent one by doing these four simple things:

  1. Remember that poems can be tiny stories. The idea of writing poetry used to make me itchy. All those adjectives, the lyric language, THE RHYME SCHEMES. But then I started reading poets like Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland and found out that (gasp!) poems can be little mini-stories. In poetry-land, they call these “narrative poems.” They are awesome.
  2. Line breaks are your friend. When you’re used to prose conventions, breaking a paragraph mid-sentence can seem weird. If you’re not sure where to break or why, do what I do and just fiddle with the line breaks until your reader could just read the break words—the last words in each line—and get a sense of the mood of the poem, what it’s about, or it’s central metaphor. For example, in this Joanna Fuhrman poem about architecture and longing, the first handful of break words are “cries,” “says,” “can’t,” “outer,” “tears,” “house’s,” and “beautiful.” If you click through, you’ll see how perfectly those words capture the tone of the poem. When in doubt, break on an action or image word.
  3. Use mood words to add tension. If you’re writing a poem about something sad, you can throw in some words with pleasant or happy connotations to complicate it a bit. And vice versa. Billy Collins does this masterfully in his poem “Snow Day,” which seems to be about a day off from school (hooray!), but he adds tension by throwing in lots of negative words and words connected with revolution. Words like “flag,” “smothered,” “government,” “blocked,” “fallen,” “prisoner,” “sympathizer,” “anarchic,” “cause,” “hide,” “plotting,” “riot,” and “queen” make the reader wonder what the poem is really about.
  4. Finally, don’t be afraid to lie. We fiction writers are, by nature, liars. I used to suffer under the misconception that poems had to be non-fiction. False! Turns out a poet can take on a “persona” the same way a fiction writer takes on a point of view character to tell her (fictional) story.

You can hop over to my Writing page and click on the poetry links to see the cheat sheet in action.

Why Duotrope’s Digest is Ruining My Life

I mentioned this before, but I think it deserves a more thorough discussion.

At first, I used Duotrope’s Digest as an easy way to find new markets for stories and the odd poem. (Just between us, I also used it for non-fiction. Shhhhh.) This was back in 2006 or so, when you could run a search and get a manageable number of results, and when you clicked the links, they would all take you to websites for actual literary magazines. Huzzah!

After a while, I signed up for the site’s submissions tracker. I still keep a word document as a back-up, but their tracker is far superior, especially now that they’re able to mine so much data from their users. I used to log in only when I had a new submission to report. I would look at all the rows of numbers and think things like, “Ah. Look at that. PANK responds very swiftly. I bet I’ll hear from them before next Tuesday.” Etc. Very calm.

But things took a turn for the obsessive-compulsive when I discovered this, a running list of all the responses reported by Duotrope’s users. Updated in real time. And sortable by date received. Eep!

Now when I log onto Duotrope, I’m more like this: “WEST BRANCH STILL HAS MY STORY AFTER 104 DAYS!! BUT THEY’VE REJECTED SUBMISSIONS THAT ARE ONLY 37 DAYS OUT!!!” Refresh. “35 DAYS!” Refresh. “38 DAYS! THEY ARE DEFINITELY TAKING MY STORY!!! I AM ADDING IT TO MY CV RIGHT NOW!!!!!” Refresh. “Form rejection after 116 days? Ah, crap.”

I have become a master at reading the tea leaves on Duotrope. 98 days at One Story means I’m getting the good form. 16 days at Smokelong means maybe… MAY-beeee… 131 days at Crazyhorse means nothing because they are Crazyslow.

It’s a science. And a sickness.

Dzanc Day! Dzig it!

I’m very happy to be co-leading a workshop for this year’s Dzanc Day, a day when writers, editors and teachers donate their time and talents to raise money for some of Dzanc Books‘ more charitable endeavors. These include the Dzanc Prize, which recognizes one writer annually for literary excellence and service to his or her community, and their Writer in Residence Program, which places professional writers into classrooms to provide creative writing instruction to public school students who could not otherwise afford it.

To help support these programs, Dzanc Day workshops are held simultaneously in various states across the U.S. The one I’m leading in Colorado Springs is about Generating and Publishing Experimental Writing and it’s going to be awesome. If you live in Colorado—sign up! If you live somewhere else, find a workshop near you and sign up for that one.

It’s going to be big, so don’t get left out!

Things I Like Around the Interwebs (plus, a new story)

My partner tells me there’s a better, more standard way to do this. He’s very interested in the OFFICIAL INTERNET. My learning curve is hurting his insides.

  1. HTML Giant. I already miss Mean Week.
  2. The PANK blog. When my students are clueless about where to send their work, I tell them to read the PANK blog and click all the links. I do it too.
  3. Nothing makes me laugh harder than Slush Pile Hell.
  4. Joel Stickley’s How to Write Badly Well. I like to read the new (and old) posts and laugh and say I am on the inside of all these jokes!
  5. I love and hate Duotrope’s Digest. A longer discussion of this is forthcoming. It has turned me into an obsessive compulsive lit mag stalker. Refresh! Refresh!

What did I miss?

Also, I have a new story live today at Bananafish. Check it out!

George Saunders Makes Me Brave

I read Saunders’ new story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” in The New Yorker over holiday break. I don’t subscribe to TNY, not because of the allegations of misogyny, but because I don’t always enjoy the fiction they choose. I also never get the cartoons. I don’t care what anyone says, they just aren’t funny. Luckily, you can read this story online for free and you don’t have to see any cartoons if you don’t want to.

Saunders floors me every time because he’s so good at writing the “idiot hero.” Jeff, the hero in this story, is not very smart. Same with Jon in “Jon,” who can barely put a coherent sentence together. And perhaps lowest on the IQ scale is one of the protagonists in “In Persuasion Nation,” a piece of wrapper from a “Slap-of-Wack bar.” But despite the limitations of his point of view characters, Saunders manipulates even the simplest language to produce intensely heart-breaking results.

Exhibit A from “Jon”:

And she said, Oh, Jon, you break my heart, that night when you came to my Tarp you were like a lion taking what he wanted but now you are like some bunny wiffling his nose in fright.

And I was pissed and sad, because no dude likes to think of himself as a rabbit, because once your girl thinks of you as a rabbit, how will she ever again think of you as a lion? And all of the sudden I felt very much like starting over with someone who would always think of me as a lion and never as a rabbit, and who really got it about how lucky we were.

“Escape from Spiderhead” is very similar to “Jon.” In both stories, a confused, not-so-bright kid is being taken advantage of by “the man” in a social-sci-fi world. And in both, he manages to figure out more than he should and ultimately do the right thing. Sounds formulaic but, man, these stories make my heart hurt.

Saunders is the writer that made me realize that while you should hear everything that gets said in a workshop, you can only implement about 12% of it, at most. While I was reading “Escape from Spiderhead,” I couldn’t help thinking what the likely response would be in a workshop. This opening alienates me, it should start on page five, the beginning is too repetitive, I need to hear more about how these machines work, give us the backstory earlier—and I can only imagine what the manuscript notes would look like.

How to Avoid Avoiding Plot

I wrote the brief craft essay below, about common traps that keep writers from writing well-plotted flash fiction, for Flash Fiction Chronicles.

I’m currently teaching a flash fiction course and my students and I have spent a fair amount of class time discussing the borderlands between flash fiction and prose poetry. While I agree that there’s a fair amount of overlap, for me what makes a piece “flash fiction” is the story, the plot.

One thing this course is teaching me is that there are many, many ways to avoid writing a plot. The following are some common traps I’ve seen my students fall into that get in the way of the plot.

  1. Focusing all of your energy on rendering a static moment with beautiful, lyric language. I love lyric language as much as the next reader and there’s certainly a place for this kind of descriptive writing (it’s called prose poetry). But in my class, you have to push beyond just writing lovely sentences. I need to see something important shift in the course of the story. Read your piece from beginning to end and ask yourself “What changes?” If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have a story.
  2. Writing a really quirky interesting character and showing us how quirky and interesting he is. This is one I see a lot. The story is a long, detailed account of an obsessive compulsive earthworm salesman going through his day. The details are strong, the writing is compelling and the character is fascinating, but there’s no plot. No matter how interesting your character is, you still need a plot. Don’t just show me an ordinary day in the life of a quirky character, show me the day when everything changes for him. If you happen to find yourself in the bottom of this well, there is good news. You’ve already got an interesting character! So if you can find the right plot for him, you’ve got a recipe for a successful flash.
  3. Revealing something at the end of the story that the character knew, but we didn’t. This is an especially tricky one because there is often an epiphany involved, the problem is that the epiphany is for the reader not the character. So you get to the end of the story and it turns out, the whole thing is being narrated by a plastic snowman inside of a snow-globe. Whoa! the reader thinks. I didn’t see that coming. In this way the story acts as kind of a joke, meant to surprise the reader. But is it a story? Not yet. The snowman knew his situation the whole time, so nothing has changed or been revealed for him. Surprises are fine in stories, but you must make sure the surprise isn’t covering up the fact that there’s no plot.
  4. Something huge and life-changing happens to the character, but the character has nothing to do with it. Passive people make great, low drama friends, but passive characters make boring stories. Say your character is a low-income mother of four desperately trying to pay for her youngest son’s lung transplant. In the final paragraph of the story, she receives a phone call informing her that an anonymous philanthropist has donated the money for the surgery. Sure, something changes, but our character had nothing to do with it. Make sure your protagonist has some agency in the story and that she acts. In this example, perhaps the more interesting point of view character might be the philanthropist. How did he find out about his woman? What made him choose her as a benefactor for his good deeds? We want to know about him because he’s active in the story, even if he never actually appears on the scene.

There are countless ways to avoid writing plot. And it’s a difficult task, especially in flash fiction where you have limited space. Be on the lookout for these four common traps and you can avoid falling into them.