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Exploring the art of fiction

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Author’s Notes

A note from the author accompanies each of the stories we publish. We ask the author to write something—anything—about the craft in their story. We love these Author’s Notes, as they shed an important light on each story. Every time we receive one, we immediately go back and reread the story, as we’re now seeing it through a different lens.

There’s such terrific advice in each of these Author’s Notes, and we’re gone through the Author’s Notes that we’ve published to date and pulled out some of the best thoughts on craft, sorting it by category. Check out the full author’s note after you’ve read these excerpts.


On POV

“A friend once called the first-person plural point-of-view “the choral first,” and that stuck with me. It is rather like a chorus, that collective perspective, all these voices piling on top of one another, bringing rhythm and sound to this more intentional, almost incantatory space. I was thinking about that, how voices together feel at once more powerful and more vulnerable, and how that felt a lot like girlhood to me.”

—Katie Knoll, “Red”

 

“In third-person limited, a story with access to only one heart and mind but in which that access is full and unfettered, the word intimacy always comes up among rewards. Conversely, one of the rewards available with multiple points of view or omniscience might be called hyper-verisimilitude: in these modes, fiction approaches the upper limits of its promise to take on the shape of real life, in which all these different minds, by accident of belonging to a social species, have been plopped in the same place, set a-spin.”

—Kate Petersen, “Singles

 

“I chose the second-person point of view because this is a character who is weaving a very personal narrative meant only for himself. He’s talking to himself, and he’s doing it in the “you” voice because he’s trying to see himself from a certain emotional remove. So even though the story isn’t written in the first-person, he gets to be both the narrator and the main character.”

—Patrick Ryan, “Tidings of the Apocalypse”


On Time

“One of the most interesting things to me about narrative time is how it tends not to work in the ways people delineate time; very few stories account for the seconds and minutes of a day. But it does mimic the way the brain tends to process things. Small, inconsequential moments move quickly, often in phrases if they need to be noted in the story, sometimes not even worth making it onto the page. But the moments where a character and the reader pause and consider are heavier. They expand and take up more of the story’s space.”

—Megan Giddings, “Vacations”


On Beginnings and Endings

“I would never recommend to a writer they open a story in a Target store, shopping in the cereal aisle. I like strong openings and intriguing first lines. (I’ve fought for some lines that might not have always served a story perfectly but that would get that story pulled out of the slush pile. Openings matter.)”

—Melissa Yancy, “Dog Years

 

“What happens afterward? What will life be like after the present drama?

These questions feel so basic to the project of fiction. A satisfying side effect of creating a character, whether by thought or intuition, is that she becomes so knowable that it is possible to foresee her future—in contrast to one’s own.”

—Alice Elliott Dark, “A Slim Blade of Air”

 

“’The Beast’ has had many endings… [The first] was an ending that shocked the rest of the story into oblivion. A nuclear ending. Pass…[The second was] a win, I thought, but a subdued win. Beverly needs to do something for herself… A friend read [the next] version and said she felt that I knew what happened next in the story, after Bev sees Pierre at the party, but I hadn’t written it. At this point, almost three years had passed since I wrote the first draft… It was time to write the ending where Bev asserts her independence from the people (i.e. the men) who have not taken her seriously, who have gained by bargaining with her, who have used her lack of scrutiny to their advantage.”

—Megan Cummins, “The Beast”


On Narrative Arc

“MFA students often learn to refer to these two kinds of complementary narratives as the “A Story” and the “B Story.” When I was a student at NYU, Darin Strauss depicted the A Story as an arc moving from low-to-high-to-low and the B Story as an arc moving the opposite direction.”

—Matthew Lansburgh, “The Lure”

 

“I knew the past and present plotlines needed to crest in tandem on the page, since it’s the combined pressure of what’s happening now and of the memory of what happened before that makes Julia do what she does in this story.”

—Clare Beams, “The Renaissance Person Tournament”

 

“Flash forwards can enhance tension by offering a respite from it and reassuring the reader that there is life beyond the harrowing moment at hand. They go beyond the scope of a story but abide by its constructed rules. In a story such as this one, which is narrated but also contains a close third person point of view from a child’s perspective, the flash forward directly accesses an adult sensibility that adds authority and makes the report of what happened more reliable via its observable connection to later life.”

—Alice Elliott Dark, “A Slim Blade of Air”


On A Story’s Impulse

“From the outset, I knew I was writing toward a moment I myself once experienced: the vision of a madwoman screaming her banal-yet-profound message to throngs of travelers in a crowded Parisian train station.”

—Elizabeth Gaffney, “The Station”

 

“Shortly before writing the story, I’d been reading about feminist versions of the legend of Bluebeard, older forms of the tale in which the young wife, upon unlocking Bluebeard’s chamber of murdered exes, reanimates the women by placing their heads back on their bodies, and then, together with her zombie sisters, regains her freedom by killing the old man.”

—Jonathan Durbin, “Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?”


 On Process

“The story would go cold for months or a year, then I’d hear or see or read or remember something that would spur (ahem) me to trot (ahem) it out again.  With each new vignette, I would print the story and lay it out on my office floor, rearranging the sections in a way that seemed most likely to engage and reward the reader.  I never thought it would be finished, let alone published.”

—Bret Anthony Johnston, “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses”

 

“The Renaissance Person Tournament” is a story in which the present action wouldn’t make sense without the past running below it and bubbling up at key moments. My challenge was to make that bubbling feel like the natural consequence of the motions of Julia’s mind, and not like something I’d arranged. It’s one of writers’ jobs, I think—doing our best not to be caught at our arranging.

—Clare Beams, “The Renaissance Person Tournament”

 

 But I don’t want to suggest I was conscious of these craft choices in the drafting of the story. It’s not unlike the art of getting dressed, which is informed by daily practice, rules long internalized (experience rendering some broken, others sacred), so that you can visualize what would work before ever putting it on, and yet there is still room for surprise, shapes that do not come together as they did in the mind, or combinations that absolutely should not work, but are transformed on the body.”

—Melissa Yancy, “Dog Years


On Setting and Place

It is a story about conflicts between two characters, within one character, and with the environment. Maren and Jeff’s relationship directly maps onto the landscape they are lost in: increasingly uncertain, without a way forward, no means of returning to what was, and ultimately resulting in separation…One of my favorite examples of a story’s use of place is John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” The landscape is at once richly realized and also highly subjective, symbolic, and increasingly surreal. I wanted to explore something similar here, with the landscape a real physical place and also a purely subjective experience, at first between two characters and then within only one.”

—Michael Sheehan, “Cathedral”

 

“It’s the first story in the book, and it establishes, I hope, a deep engagement with place and a mood of shiftiness and permeability. It feels, finally and importantly, like I wrote it.

—Michael McGriff, “Be God”

 

“When so much is already unknown or strange about the “familiar” world, the constructs of reality and fantasy break down. I’m hard-pressed to identify an example of anything that is familiar that isn’t strange, and vice versa. Is using key concepts in ecology to understand the dynamics within a corporate office, or within a family or any other brand of human relationship, really an example of making the familiar strange or is it perhaps an example of making the strange familiar? I can make an argument in both directions.”

—Michelle Ross, “Key Concepts in Ecology

 

On Theme and Genre

“The state of being afraid weirdly connects Americans across the spectrum right now – people who otherwise think they don’t share anything in common. Everyone is anxious, and this universal state of fear puts people into situations where they can be manipulated more easily. The horror genre is a double-edged sword in this regard, since it contributes to the climate of fear but also can offer the chance to confront and challenge our worst fears in a fictional space that makes it safer, perhaps, or more distanced, at least.”

—J.M. Tyree, “Parenthood”

 

“This story falls roughly in the middle of a set of linked stories that together comprise a loose-knit novel. The final craft issue I want to discuss is withholding.  For me, Louisa’s story is quite a lot larger than this episode.  The challenge in each story, then, is to choose how much to include or withhold, leaving enough open space to allow for suspense but enough concrete detail to ground the character and endow each individual story with weight.”

—Elizabeth Gaffney, “The Station”


by Laura Spence-Ash