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Dispatch from Lit Fest: Short Story Breakthrough, Part II

Note: After the popular Part I posting on the Lit Fest Short Story Intensive from Karen DeGroot Carter, we begged her to do a part II. The first weekend was taught by writer Jennifer S. Davis; the second weekend by Nic Brown. Thanks, Karen!

The second weekend of the Short Story Breakthrough Intensive was taught by another instructor new not only to me but to the Lighthouse family, Nic Brown.

Author of the novel Doubles and the short story collection Floodmarkers, which was selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review, Nic is a Columbia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate who’s served as fiction editor at the Iowa Review. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Northern Colorado.

While the first weekend of the intensive, taught by Jennifer S. Davis, was indeed pretty intense, the second weekend seemed deceivingly laid-back, probably due to Nic’s easy-going personality. Yet we discovered an amazing range of topics and hit on still more terminology and strategies I, for one, really needed to hear.

  • Top of the list: Be relentless when editing your own work. Push back on any weak spots in order to make sure every brick of your story’s construction is solid. Such weak spots might include fuzzy prose, over-the-top phrasing, or any implied “you know what I mean” references. Be aware of your reader’s tool kit, what knowledge your reader has at her disposal and what she might need to learn from you in order to make sense of what’s going on in your story. Be clear about what’s at stake and what your story’s potential conflicts are all about. Be willing to explain some details regarding motivations, relationships, and situations.
  • Put pressure on the relationships of the words you use. Be aware that where prose starts to break down, bigger stuff might be at work. Focus on weak sections of your story to see how they can be further developed.
  • Identify the surface level of your story—the level at which the action takes place—as well as the emotional level. Both levels must intersect and assist each other. Use the action-level stakes as  conduits to deliver the emotional stakes.
  • Keep in mind your reader’s inner duckling (this makes me smile!). In the same way a duckling who’s lost its parent imprints itself onto any other available bird or animal, your reader becomes attached to your main character and wants to stay close to him throughout your story. Invest in his emotion and consciousness.
  • Develop other characters in your story. Identify all characters that matter in your story, then pinpoint scenes in which they don’t appear. Engage them in difficult ways.
  • Develop conflicts between characters your reader cares about to the point of intense  complication. If your most important character has the least to lose, up the ante for him.
  • Avoid safety valves that let you, the author, off the hook. Don’t let a character fall asleep.
    Don’t let the lights go out.
  • Use flashbacks efficiently in order to flesh out and open up relationships, not as safety zones in  which you can hide what truly matters. Let important stuff rise to the surface. Write the hard scenes.
  • Move between the immediate action of your story and flashbacks in a structured way. Be a fiction
  • Build in details such as family complications to open up the vertical dimension of a character’s
    personal story.
  • Don’t remind your reader she’s reading via distractions or fuzzy details that pop her out of the
    story’s world.
  • Simplify all descriptions of character movement.
  • Make every element of your story move your story forward.
  • Use objects. Use strange and specific details.
  • Blend the lines between poetry and prose.
  • Give your reader the chance to decode your story. It’s ok to provide a “decoder ring” line that at  least hints at why you’re telling your story. Also make clear why it’s important this story be told NOW.
  • Distill all dialogue to get to your best lines. Use said and asked. Nic provided a copy of Denis Johnson’s popular story “Emergency,” which has its fair share of tight, surprising passages of dialogue with no unnecessary embellishments.
  • Nic also talked about submitting work to literary journals. He said good writing always rises to the top and editors love to discover new writers, and he recommended “lowering the stakes for yourself” as an author and simply focusing on making a manuscript as good as possible before sending it off.
  • We didn’t have time to do this exercise, but even thinking about its elements are helpful: Make  separate lists of interesting characters, settings, and objects. Pick two of the characters, put them in one of the settings, and give one character one of the objects. Make that character passionate about that object, but force him to give it to the other character. Break the object. Add dialogue. Sounds like a potential recipe for disaster…or a really good short story.

During the weekend, Nic referred to and recommended Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds by George Singleton. He also recommended reading Carver, Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Rick Bass, and James Alan McPherson as well as literary reviews such as the Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta. The summer issue of The New Yorker was mentioned; it includes stories by Saunders, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Lauren Groff as well as nonfiction by Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, and Edward P. Jones, among others.

While Nic’s a tough editor, he also encourages treating your reader well by not speaking down to her, explaining only what’s necessary, and providing the basic facts about your protagonist and your story’s location and time period early on, in essence holding your reader’s hand as she enters the fictional world you’ve created.

Then let go. No hand-holding allowed in dialogue, for example. Show your characters in action through specific details, but consider the cost-benefit analysis of each narrative decision you make along the way.

Ultimately, the character in which your reader is most invested is going to endure something that changes him, perhaps even causes him to suffer. But if you’ve done your work, your reader will be right there with him to see him through…all the way to the end.

–Karen Carter  

Thanks for this, Karen, and thanks to all who have been the real lights of the sixth-annual Lit Fest.

2 comments on “Dispatch from Lit Fest: Short Story Breakthrough, Part II

  1. Paul
    June 17, 2011

    This is just lovely. Thank you Karen, you are obviously a thorough (and thoughtful) student. And so generous to write these up.

    My favorite is: Use objects. Use strange and specific details.

    Yesterday I was reading Tom Robbins and this line jumped out at me: “They marched straight to the door of the house trailer and gave it a self-councious thunk. Moments later it opened to them, releasing odors of incense and boiled cauliflower.”

    Boiled cauliflower!

  2. Karen Carter
    June 26, 2011

    Thanks so much for your note, Paul! Boiled cauliflower, indeed!

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This entry was posted on June 15, 2011 by in LitFest, Member dispatches, The Write Idea, Writing.

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