Tag Archives: writing

What’s wrong with John Gardner’s concept of narrative structure

This weekend I had the opportunity to read a negative review written about someone whose stories I found dazzling. The reviewer has since admitted he was wrong about the review, so I suppose the less I say about the whole thing, the better. But I was intrigued by the reviewer citing John Gardner as the example of How One Must Write.

John Gardner has been on my mind lately as one of the people who studied at the Creative Writing Workshop From Hell — run by a highly authoritarian program director who also pioneered the Creative Writing Program as Anti-Commie Propaganda. (For background, see Creative Writing Programs and the CIA Fan Club and More on the Iowa Writers Workshop.)

Did the authoritarian workshop impact Gardner’s aesthetic, and through that, the writing advice that is handed down to writers, editors, and reviewers? I don’t know.

But I’d really like to, because John Gardner and his Way One Must Write has been on my mind since 1996, when I wrote a critical essay on narrative structure for my master’s thesis. I’m including an excerpt here.

The form of a story does influence its subject. A traditional narrative structure, such as that found in many nineteenth century novels, has strong closure, in which something happens that limits the characters’ options or makes them unable to change in some way. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes the story’s denouement:

“The conflict is now resolved, or in the process of resolving, either because the will of the central character has been overwhelmed or because he has won and his situation is once more stabilizing (188).”

In the first instance, where the character has been overwhelmed, the character cannot change because he or she has failed. In the second, the character cannot change because he or she has won; this is not necessarily bad for the character or the reader, but it can mislead the reader by obscuring the fact that something always happens next.

This traditional plot structure is well suited to death and marriage stories; death and marriage can both limit the characters’ options in the way that Gardner suggests they should—by making them either fail or “succeed.” However, many other stories don’t fit this traditional plot structure—especially quest stories in which the protagonist continues questing at the end of the novel. Song of the Lark, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit don’t fit this structure because the female protagonists don’t seem to be able to conclude their quests or stop their emotional and intellectual growth. That is, although they do “win,” their victory doesn’t halt or obscure their growth. Another kind of story that can’t be told using this traditional narrative structure is the story in which the characters don’t win or lose, but instead simply live in some kind stasis. For instance, in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, the main character, Oliveira beings the story with no real battle to fight and reaches a point in which he literally cannot go on to do anything else, either living or dying. In Hopscotch, Cortazar gives the reader the alternative of reading the novel by skipping from one chapter to another in a prearranged way. At the “end” of the novel, Cortazar directs the reader to chapter 131, then to chapter 58, then back to chapter 131 and so on, for infinity or until the reader decides to put the book down. Here Oliveira has not won. He might be said to have lost, because he has no hope, but I would argue instead that he is simply in a deadening stasis, much like the drug-addicted mother in Paley’s story.

If traditional narrative structure doesn’t provide a way for these stories to be told, it also doesn’t provide a way to keep the struggle between possibilities and limitations unresolved at the end of the story; or to show life as a process rather than an end product.

If I had this essay to write over, I would probably say many things differently. If I look at John Gardner’s book again, I would probably read it differently. But one thing’s for sure:

There is no One Right Way to make stories.

Thank goodness.

So little time, so much to do

Now that I’ve published Misfits from the Beehive State, I’m ready to get going on other projects. So I took a peek at everything I’ve left undone over the last seven years. I have stories that got published in magazines but really would like to live in a book, stories that I finished and set aside because I wasn’t sure if they were good, and stories I sent away, again and again, and never got published anywhere. I also have new stories, which I submitted to my writing group and incorporated feedback, but not yet sent off for publication. And I have unfinished stories, waiting for me to get to them.

All told, I’ve got 12+ stories that fit into one or another of those categories. And every time I look at them, I get anxious. Fiction is like that for me. I write nonfiction easily and (obviously) send it out shamelessly to the world in my blog. But fiction scares me. I’m scared to write it, send it for critique, look at the critiques, incorporate the critiques, and send it off. Now that this collection is done, I’m scared to ask people for reviews, to ask bookstores to buy my books, and to ask about setting up readings.

I do it all anyway, because, well, I’m brave. But now that I’ve got my list in front of me, I’m feeling especially queasy. And I have a new problem:  Where do I start???

So much to do, so little time.

Tunnels of Time

By fdecomite (Tunnels of Time) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

Why am I self-publishing?

I own a license plate frame that says, “A Woman’s Place Is My Bookstore.” Come to think of it, I ought to put it on my car. It’s not just a lovely sentiment — it’s also advertising for a bookstore that used to exist in the early 1990s, before chains like Barnes and Noble put a lot of independent bookstores out of business. A Woman’s Place. That bookstore supported me as a fledgling writer. I gave a reading there, and I took a workshop with Pam Houston there that led to a wonderful writing group. But now it’s gone, as is the Red and Black Bookstore in Seattle — quite a loss.

At the same time as bookstores were consolidating, publishing houses were also consolidating. It became harder and harder to publish midlist books (books that make money but aren’t bestsellers). And books that were published went quickly to the remainder table, because they were profitable, but not profitable enough.

At the same time, the growth of MFA programs put out more and more and more accomplished writers, all of whom were submitting stories to literary magazines and book publishers.

What did all this mean? As my writing became better and better, the likelihood of publishing a collection of short stories with a traditional publisher moved farther and farther away. The rules had changed. And my strategy for getting published ought also have changed.

Here was the strategy in the early 1990s: you submit stories to literary magazines. Once you have enough, you seek out an agent or an editor and attempt to get your collection published. But by the beginning of this century, when I finally had a publishable-quality collection of short stories, that strategy was ultimately doomed.

So to me, the question is not, “Should I self-publish?” The question is now, “Why did I wait so frickin long?”

I re-evaluated everything when I sent my collection to an agent and she said, “Yes, it’s good enough to publish. But I can’t sell it until you’ve sold a story to either the New Yorker, Harpers, or the Atlantic Quarterly.” And then I sent a story to the New Yorker, and I got a note back saying that despite its evident merit, it wasn’t the kind of thing they published. Earlier in my writing career, I would have been ecstatic, because a handwritten rejection note from the New Yorker meant that you were getting somewhere! But I realized then that I simply wouldn’t get anywhere with the kind of writing I did.

And then the publishing industry changed again. Publishing houses started paying authors less and less, and Amazon made it possible for people to make money self-publishing, and now, many respected authors are self-publishing on Amazon. So I went for it.

Thank you, Ariel Gore and your book How to Be a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead!!!!

I realized a couple important things when I made the decision to self-publish. I changed my book title, my “pitch,” and even the kind of stories that were in the collection. I was no longer trying to please a publisher; I was trying to please a reader. And I know what a reader is like — after all, I am one! All I had to do was make a book that someone like me would be interested in reading.

What if nobody likes it? What if nobody buys it? That’s where my friend Brandon came in. “I want to read it,” he said. “I’ll buy it.”

One reader. Just one reader. It’s worth doing.

How long does writing take?

Q: How long does it take you to write 600 words? (That’s the equivalent of two double-spaced typed pages.)

A: Three hours. Two hours and forty-five minutes of procrastination (say:  a cup of coffee, a book, a bath, a sandwich, and some wandering around the house worrying about the clutter, and all this on a GOOD day) and fifteen minutes of writing.

Q: Fifteen minutes, huh? That’s fast. You must write a lot.

A: I taught myself to type in high school and then worked as a secretary for several summers. Letters can indeed come out of my fingers at the rate of 600 words in 15 minutes, which is 40 words per minute. But most of those words suck, to be honest. They’re probably going to be rewritten ten times over.

Q: Why not just go slower and write it correctly the first time?


Q (defensively): What?

A: I have only the haziest idea of what I am going to write until I have written it. It’s sort of like driving a car on a foggy night with no road and your eyes closed.

Q: Well, good luck with that.

A: Thanks.

pencil and notebook3

Status update on the short story collection

It’s incredible how many steps it takes to publish a book, once the writing is done. But I’m getting there. As of today, I have incorporated all the copy edits. Yay!!! That means the text is finalized. FINALIZED. Sweet.

The cover art should be ready by November 15th. My next step is to get it in the proper format for ebook and print. The ebook formatting shouldn’t be too difficult — I’m using the Coffee Cup HTML editor and the Calibre E-book converter, and I’ve had plenty of practice with both of those. But I do have to find some pretty text features, called fleurons, to use for screen breaks. 

The hardest part is going to be writing the cover blurb. Yaagh! Those will be the hardest ~100 words of the whole collection. I probably shouldn’t do it. Nobody should ever write their own cover blurb, probably. I should probably find, or pay, somebody else.

Summer project

This summer’s project is to get my short story collection out the door. All the stories are written, and I’m halfway through the introduction. On August 15th, I’m sending it to editor Deb Taber, and by the end of the month the text will be done. Here’s the table of contents:

Misfits from the Beehive State

by Kristin King


Introduction (My Cat Can Eat a Whole Watermelon)
The Wings
Into the  Box
Keeping House
Swallow the Clock
Feed the Monster
Grandmother Henrietta’s Curse
Out of the Box
Scarlet Ribbons

With some luck and hard work, this should be ready to go by the end of September. It will mark the end of a really long and frustrating journey . . . and the beginning of the next writing project!

Couple stories published in Missing Links and Secret Histories

So if you haven’t heard yet, good news on the publication front. Two of my stories came out in the anthology Missing Links and Secret Histories from Aqueduct Press.

NPR online rated it one of the top 5 books to read this summer. I agree. And no, not just because my stories are in it! This is the kind of book you might take to the beach, have fun reading a story, then watch the water while you think about it. I can manage one story a day, if that.

My two stories are:

“Mystery of the Missing Mothers” — fake Wikipedia entries detailing how teen detective Nancy’s search for her mother leads her through a time tunnel into an ancient Sumerian city, where mysterious stone tablets describe her search for her mother.

Excerpt: “Nancy and her friend Tom Swift are comparing memories about their dead mothers and discover startling similarities. Hunting for some answers, Nancy goes to the Riverside Library only to find the river has flooded and alluvial mud is swamping the library. . . . She trips, falls into a wall, and knocks a brick loose, revealing a hidden passage. Excited, Nancy pries away the bricks with a chisel she brought just in case and then goes on down the tunnel using a flashlight she just happened to have.”

and “The Galadriel Apocrypha” — fake Wikipedia entries about how Galadriel will be depicted in the canon in various cyberchurches in the Next Age.

Excerpt: “The characterization of Galadriel is also controversial in these apocryphal texts. They paint a picture of Galadriel as a transsexual(1) who befriended the Dark Elves(2) and who was destined to become an organizer and military strategist in a quest to unite all the races of Middle-Earth(3). This is in direct contradiction to claims made by both the Church of the Elven Queen and the Ilúvatar Priesthood that all elves are strictly heterosexual and respect the Hierarchy of Races, and that any evidence to the contrary stems from serious inconsistencies in Tolkien’s unfinished works(4). The Ilúvatar AI, as always, has made no comment one way or the other.”

Sound geeky and silly and twisty-turny? They are.

Cover to the anthology Missing Links and Secret Histories

Persuasive Writing for Activists: Knowing Your Audience

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Last week we talked about the purpose:  what you’re trying to accomplish with your piece of persuasive writing. This week we’ll talk about who you’re writing it for. 

Getting to Know Your Audience

Many activists are so dedicated to the issue they care about that they forget that their audience might not be. Here are five important facts about your audience. 

  1. They are probably too busy to read your piece from start to finish. 
  2. They might not know little or nothing about the issue. 
  3. They might not know the jargon. 
  4. They might be skeptical of activists. 
  5. Despite all that, they might care deeply about the issue and want to act! 

Consider the Demographics 

I’m a white woman who is relatively well off and has a bit of free time, which is why I can write and do activism. If I’m not careful, I imagine my audience is too. They’re not. Think about people’s racial heritage, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability/disability, age, occupation, and financial situations.They’re all different! Different people will have different perspectives and care about different aspects of the issue. 

You Have Multiple Audiences 

Bear in mind that you have multiple audiences. Some know a lot about the issue and some know next to nothing. Some like activists and some don’t. Some share your racial heritage and some don’t. 

Go Meet Them 

Get to know your audience. Get out and talk to people about your issue. But don’t lecture. Listen more than you talk. I am surprised every single time I talk to people, and I learn a lot. I learn what people care about and what people don’t. I learn the language they use. I learn how not to act like an activist geek. I learn what they know and don’t know. 

Stay tuned: Next week we’ll talk about targeting your piece to your audience.