Note: This essay contains spoilers for the new Kindle Single, 'Phoenix' by Chuck Palahniuk. If you haven't yet read this wonderful story, remedy that right now.
by Chuck Palahniuk
If you’ve had a chance to read Phoenix, thank you. It consists of cat-related anecdotes I’ve heard over the past several years. Chances are you’ve already heard me tell a small part of it on tour. The best fiction rises – yes, like a phoenix – out of the ashes of people’s sad, true disasters. We write in order to repeat the past. As it says in the story, “…The people will always be humping next door. The cat will always be screaming around every house they own...”
If you’re reading this be warned. It will make very little sense unless you’re read Phoenix. In this essay I’ll explore the mechanics of the story. Everything I write is constructed like a truck on the Freightliner assembly line: Smaller components of the vehicle are assembled by teams in far-flung locations. Prior to the final draft, the whole project looks like a spread-out mess. Then – flash – the truck is whole. Then, amazingly, It Drives Away Under Its Own Power!
When I worked at Freightliner we built 26, sometimes 27 trucks in eight hours. That seems impossible until you consider that the “assembly line” is less like a line than like a branched river system. The parts of a story flow into it from every direction. It would be too exhausting to look at them all – the plot, the themes, the authority, the original sources, the metaphors – so this essay will focus on the basic shape of the story.
In the past I’ve called these – stories of this shape -- “Postage Stamp” or “Thumbnail” stories because we’re told the entire story in miniature as it begins. In the film Titanic we’re shown a rough computer model of how the ship will sink. In Citizen Kane we’re shown the crude newsreel about the life and death of Charles Foster Kane. In both cases, these little sneak-peeks hook us with the promise of big events to come. They whet our appetite like a Shakespearean prologue. This structure also dampens the melodrama of the plot points. For example, we know most of the people will die on the Titanic. We know Charles Foster Kane’s love affair will be exposed and ruin his political career. By sacrificing the surprise of those events, the authors allow the audience to focus on the deeper emotions that are motivating the characters. read more »
By Stephen Graham Jones
So David Foster Wallace is getting the Joyce treatment, where each and every little scribbleydoo we can unearth from him is magic, golden, poked and prodded from every angle so we can see the genius beneath. And there was plenty there, don’t get me wrong. Granted, the pedestal he’s being put on now that he can’t do anything about it, it’s kind of scary high, makes me nervous he might get elevated so far out of reach we forget about him altogether (and thus feel better about ourselves, without his talent in the room), but that kind of stuff’s inevitable, really. His legend’ll ride it out or it won’t, and, either way, we’ll still have some of his books around. read more »
by Craig Clevenger
NIGHT OF THE LIVING SYNTAX: DISEMBODIED ACTION
Stories are about people doing shit. Yeah, take a minute to let that soak in. Feel free to quote me, too. Allow me to elaborate: a story has somebody who wants something, goes for it and gets cock-blocked. Our hero, let’s call him “Somebody” (because I’m creative like that), then redoubles his effort with a Plan B. Each new attempt means greater and greater effort on Somebody’s part, with greater risk each time, and greater consequences with each action. The cycle repeats itself up to the climax, where at which point the consequences are the most significant.
Pardon the sarcastic recap of the craft, but the notion of character volition is one of the guiding principles in this piece. Your protagonist must have a desire; your protagonist must also behave willfully to bring about that desire. This goes for the action hero who desires to rescue the hostages from the fortified building and willfully takes the appropriate action to do so; it also goes for the daughter working up the nerve to face her estranged mother who’s on her deathbed.
Even if your protagonist is a perennial couch potato, that character’s desire to do nothing is an act of will. He or she consciously chooses to ignore the phone or take a shower; to watch television instead of scan the classifieds for a job. As lazy as he or she is, they are still choosing one set of behaviors over another; the laziness is not choosing them. If it is, you may be writing about a character with serious depression, in which case he or she has different sets of choices—likewise a battle of will—waiting ahead.
Some stories are driven by protagonists who start a chain of events by their own hand, others by protagonists who are reacting to the circumstances and events around them. In every case, your protagonist wants something and takes measures to get it. If your protagonist has no will, your reader finds another book. Critical in establishing your character’s will is putting as much conscious action within your character’s scope of behavior as possible. read more »
by Craig Clevenger
TALKING HEADS, HEARING VOICES AND THE DISAPPEARING NARRATOR
I have two major pet peeves when it comes to dialogue. First, it bugs me when all the characters sound alike. Sure, with regional diction, accents, socioeconomic class, blah blah blah, it may be tough to distinguish between the Valley Dude speak of two high school kids, but not between those kids and their teachers or parents. Secondly, when characters speak with the same eloquence, or at very least the same style, as the narrator, i.e., the author, it rings false for me. One of the most valuable classes I had as an undergrad was a single semester of writing for the stage, during which we wrote two one-act plays. I still intended to write prose fiction, but writing plays forced me to hang the story on characters and dialogue.
To this day, I write all of my dialogue separately. In The Contortionist’s Handbook, I extracted all of the dialogue from the first finished draft, pasted it into a separate document in script format, what I call a “dialogue map.” No dialogue tags, narration, etc. I read through it out loud, re-worked it until I was satisfied, then dropped it back into the subsequent draft of the novel. With Dermaphoria, I wrote the entire first draft with no dialogue at all. Just narrative, with placeholders for the dialogue. Those placeholders had notes as to the nature of the exchange and the particular outcome, as well as any specific key phrases or lines I wanted to use. With each chapter, I wrote a dialogue map from scratch, worked on the dialogue separately from the novel (multiple drafts, etc., as though each map were a short play), then wove it back into the prose and worked on dialogue tags and breaking up the prose to accommodate it. In my current project, I’m writing all of the dialogue first with each chapter, to make certain that the chapter is driven by the voices and actions of the characters.
Yes, it’s a lot of work, but worth it in my opinion. I’m very self-conscious about my dialogue. Will Christopher Baer thinks I’m crazy. He’s probably right. But the feeling is mutual.
Good dialogue is all about the author being invisible and letting the characters take center stage. It’s the difference between watching people on a screen, versus spying on them through the window, versus being in the room with them. Ideally, you want your reader in the room with your characters; experiencing your story as opposed to witnessing it (or simply hearing about it). Crafting realistic dialogue is a matter of time and practice, of listening to people and having an ear (and a love) for accents. While I have a few pointers on those things, they’re really up to the individual writer to work at. However, I have learned some very practical ways for the author to disappear when it comes to writing dialogue, methods that remove the one-way mirror between the reader and the story. read more »
by Craig Clevenger
INTRODUCTION: THE DESCRIPTION DILEMMA
Write with verbs and nouns. Show, don't tell. We all know the drill. So how do I write descriptions which, by their very definition, demand adjectives and adverbs? How do I show a woman in a red cocktail dress without simply telling the reader, she wore a red cocktail dress? read more »
by Stephen Graham Jones
Everybody loves to badtalk the adverb, and I’ll usually jump right on that bandwagon. Except then, right in the process of jumping, I’ll realize I’m gleefully jumping, or blindly jumping, or some kind of –ly jumping — which is to say I hit a wall in my prose that I can only get over with that lolly-lolly adverb, as packing all the color into the verb’s going to draw just stupid amounts of attention to that particular sentence, when, really, it’s just one of those get-me-to-the-next-room sentences, no need for the spotlight, thanks.
read more »
by Chuck Palahniuk
Included with Advanced Readers Copies
Sent out with the UK edition of 'Haunted'
No one fainted the first time I read the short story, 'Guts'. This was on a Tuesday night, in the writers workshop where my friends and I have shared our work since 1991. Each week, I would read another of the short stories I planned to include in a novel to be called Haunted. My goal was to create horror around very ordinary things: carrots, candles, swimming pools. Microwave popcorn. Bowling balls.
No one fainted, in fact my friends laughed. At moments, the room had the silence of total shocked attention. No one scribbled helpful notes in the margin of their copy. No one reached for their glass of wine.
This was better than the Tuesday before, when my story called 'Exodus' sent a friend into my bathroom where she cried behind the locked door for the rest of the evening. Later, her therapist would ask for a copy of the story to help with her psychoanalysis. read more »
by Stephen Graham Jones
The biggest lie I tell myself about revising is that I do it as I go. You've heard this, right? I don't think I'm coming up with anything new here, anyway. And, it's a seductive thing to believe-to want to believe, at least. And the finished products even tend to support it. Take a novel, say, and note how that first paragraph, that first scene, maybe even that first chapter, it sings, it gleams, it sets a standard which, if the rest of the novel could rise to meet it, or just keep up, man, that book, it would be a bulletproof thing. But nearly every time, that level of quality, that shine, that attention to words or loyalty to story or clarity of vision or whatever, it slackens and wobbles and wanes, until you've got a squid-ending: a big cloud of ink standing in for what might have been, what the writer was almost able to grab, hold out for you to see. read more »
by Chuck Palahniuk
Twenty years ago, a friend and I walked around downtown Portland at Christmas. The big department stores: Meier and Frank… Fredrick and Nelson… Nordstroms… their big display windows each held a simple, pretty scene: a mannequin wearing clothes or a perfume bottle sitting in fake snow. But the windows at the J.J. Newberry's store, damn, they were crammed with dolls and tinsel and spatulas and screwdriver sets and pillows, vacuum cleaners, plastic hangers, gerbils, silk flowers, candy - you get the point. Each of the hundreds of different objects was priced with a faded circle of red cardboard. And walking past, my friend, Laurie, took a long look and said, "Their window-dressing philosophy must be: 'If the window doesn't look quite right - put more in'." read more »
by Max Barry
"All first drafts are shit," according to Ernest Hemingway, and who would argue with someone who checks out by eating a shotgun? No, no, Ern was on to something here: when you finally crest that great mountain and stare "THE END" full in the face-when you, somehow, incredibly, have managed to complete a novel-length work-then you're about half-way home.
Unless you're like me, in which case you have further to go. Much further.
Maybe the idea of writing 90,000 words that bear some kind of relation to one another is daunting enough for you right now, and if so you don't want to read any further. It's best not to know what awaits. Better to think that once your word count (checked every ten minutes, and God damn it rises slowly some days) is high enough, it's all over. You've written a novel! Yep, if that's you, you definitely don't want to hear this. read more »