Out of office: Sewanee 2015 and a new novel excerpt

maxresdefaultSo, I’m packing up and preparing for my trip to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. It’s an odd feeling, a bit of nerves and a bit of excitement, like going away for summer camp. Which, in many ways, I suppose this is: it’s camp for writers, where instead of crafts we have workshops and instead of smores we have alcohol and instead of telling stories around campfires we tell stories in classrooms. (I do plan to do some hiking, so there’s that camp experience, too.)

I’ve been pre-reading my workshop-mates’ material this past week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my own novel I’ll be workshopping with them — in truth, I’ve been more than thinking, I’ve been working on it — and, as promised, I thought I’d share some of that novel with you before I head into my writers-conference hiatus from the blog. But I decided not to share with you what I’m workshopping, mostly because I don’t know what that material is going to look like on the other side of this writers’ conference. And besides, you’ve already seen an early draft of some of it from last year’s NaNoWriMo.

So, as a treat (because I’m going to be gone from the blog for so long), I’m offering you a first look at new material, rough-draft stuff that I’m not workshopping these next two weeks, words no one has ever seen yet. You’re the first. Because, readers, I like you.

He thought they might deploy to the east where the real war occurred, and in the first weeks the troops he trained with wrote home with zeal about marching across their new nation or perhaps even boarding a troop train, but Craven wrote letters only to himself and mailed to his own home in a pretense so to avoid any questions, and in his letters he wrote the truth: that his outfit seemed determined to stay put. They drilled and played cards and a gunsmith sawed off a length of Craven’s barrels to better suit his shotgun to horseback. They’d heard for months of trouble to the north, in bloody Missouri, and after near a year in camp they marched north to join another command, but as they entered the Ouachita Mountains fighting broke out amid a wooded valley tightly surrounded by foothills and steep ridges. The only sounds were of gunfire and distant cannonshot and Craven whispered to the man beside him, “I thought there’d be more excitement among the men,” but he received no reply. As the powdersmoke collected in the valleys like acrid fog, Craven realized he has lost his regiment.

He drew his shotgun and leveled it into the smoke and he fired at shadows, both barrels so he bruised his shoulder as when he was a boy. He managed to pack another load in each barrel but the action was frenzied and he lost a fistful of waddings and dropped his horn so he had to dismount to retrieve it. Afoot, he ran into the haze firing again. He’d no idea if he hit anything or anyone. He knelt as men ran past and he reloaded but this time lost several nipples and someone loomed from the haze before he’d time to fix the second nipple. So he put his fists around the twin barrels and swung the shotgun like a club, but by then the man had departed or died by someone else’s shot. Craven saw his horse several paces off, dancing uncertainly and wheeling its wild-eyed head, and Craven ran back to it, leaned against it with one arm around its neck and the other sheathing the rifle. He reached across the saddle and drew from the saddle-scabbard his big Colt, checked the chambers. He remounted and cocked the hammer but he held his fire until a great gray shape loomed out of the smoke and in a panic he shot off one round into the flank of a horse that screamed and galloped sideways away from him then fell. Craven walked his own horse up on the fallen animal where it flailed on the ground trying to regain its legs, but if it ever held a rider the rider was gone now. Craven could see that the horse was beyond hope and he tucked his pistol into his belt and drew his shotgun again and dismounted again and pressed the barrels against the forehead of the horse and fired, and he didn’t bother to reload.

Men ran about in the shroud and a round passed his head so close his ear rang and he cocked and fired his pistol, the recoil of it surprising him and sending his arm high. In his panic he cocked it again and fired into the ground just from nerves. His horse had jogged sideways several paces and was turning circles unsure where to go, what to do, and as he made his way back to it, it stepped away from him at pace. He chased the horse for two full minutes through the battle, firing shots in all directions as he went, until he cornered the horse at a copse of trees and managed to calm it enough to lift himself into the saddle and there he stayed, stroking his horse’s neck.

He could still hear the voices of men but knew not which side any man fought for, and when he heard someone shout Every man for himself! he left the skirmishing to seek higher ground. When he found it, the battle had moved on without him, around a hillside and off in some direction he could barely discern.

Craven rode south for half an hour, his horse galloping of its own accord until they were clear of the smoke and then it slowed itself to a trot and Craven let it move at its own pace. When the horse stopped, it was at a kind of road, more a cart track, perpendicular to their path and, seeing no other trail to follow, Craven sat the horse and studied the track. He picked at an ingrown hair on one cheek and listened to the gunshots echoing indistinctly among the jagged hills, then he looked to the sky as though to determine the time though the overcast light showed him no news. He untucked his pistol from his belt and replaced it in its scabbard, checked his pack and the pouches at his belt just to reassure himself of his gear, then he rubbed his horse’s neck a few minutes and finally chose east and rode on.

After an hour he came on a house and stopped in the cart track to study it. He rode up and hitched his horse to the fencerail and dismounted inside the yard, but as he approached the house a small woman with streaks of gray in her bunned hair flew from the house, her skirts nearly tripping her as she waving her arms at him. She came close enough to call to him in a hoarse whisper that a gang of Yankee soldiers were in her home, taking leave of her stores. Craven looked back to his horse, the sheathed shotgun there, the pistol, imagined charging in after the men to rescue this woman, but he remembered the shotgun was yet unloaded, and how many rounds he’d left in the pistol he couldn’t recall. Instead, he turned and jumped the fence, from the bottom rail directly into his saddle, and he wheeled and spurred his horse so fast he pulled down the fencerail he’d hitched to. Behind him the shouts of men pursuing. He gigged his horse bloody, trying to put some distance behind him before the Yankees had time to mount and clear the fence after him, and soon he was far past the cart track and through a small creek and charging up a shallow hill.

Craven reined in near the crest and checked his pursuers to find them fast closing, nearly to the creek already. He spurred his horse and at the top of the rise spied a nearby bit of woods, which he aimed for and entered just as he heard the Yankees splash into the creek. The woods were small but dense and rose in uneven slopes from the base of a foothill. The fastest route of escape would have been to ride the other side of the ridge hard downhill, using the momentum to aid his speed, and Craven reasoned the Yankees would reckon the same, so he rode a few hundred yards then cut a sharp line to the north, uphill into denser woods. It was slow riding but he soon found that in the fallen leaves his slower pace was muffled and he brought his horse up near a thick copse and ducked under the overhanging branches with his cheek to the mane and from the saddle he listened, half to the heavy breath and heartbeat of his horse and half to the sound of the Yankees. Sure enough, the gang of pursuers, whose numbers he never knew, went pounding over harder earth downhill, and soon he could hear them no more.

He caught his breath and calmed his horse, checking the gouges from his spurs and hugging the horse’s neck in apology. He wished he had an apple to offer and he scanned the trees in hopes of some fruit but found none. He looked down the hill again, knowing his escape was lucky and possibly temporary, for once the soldiers were out of the woods they’d see him missing from the open prairie and, if they were mad enough, they might turn around and retrace their path to find him. So he continued uphill until he found a cabin built into an overhang, three clapboard walls wedged under a stone shelf.

It looked so ramshackle he thought it might be abandoned, but in the waning light he made out a thin smoke from a stovepipe built crooked out the wall and around the lip of the rock, and soon thereafter a man emerged and, spotting Craven, called into the shack for his partners. Two other men exited, one of them holding a rifle on Craven. Craven drew his pistol, but neither man challenged the other as Craven dismounted and stood beside his horse to let the men approach. Soon they were close enough that Craven could recognize the rifle as a small yagger, a Mississippi rifle, and Craven lowered his pistol and greeted the men.

“I’m looking for McCorkle’s men,” Craven said, “a company of Arkansans and Texans, passing along the main road headed north to join General Van Dorn.”

The shack was on the east side of the hill so the last of the day’s light was failing rapidly, but Craven could see well enough to note the change in their demeanor. Still he saw no reason yet to take them for anything but deserters or men trying to avoid the war, and he pressed his case.

“Each man must follow his own conscience, and I don’t intend to bring y’all into it if you’ve no mind to join. I just need the road, if you could point me in the direction.”

But the man holding the yagger pressed its barrel into Craven’s chest and cocked the hammer, and each of the three men stood shaking their heads.

“You have wandered into the wrong camp, Reb,” the rifleman said, and another man took Craven’s pistol off him while the third grabbed the reins of Craven’s horse.

Want to know what happens next? Sit tight, gang — I’ll write the rest of this novel as fast as I can! And except for a (slimly) possible photo post or two, I’ll see you all again in two weeks!

Sewanee 2015

maxresdefaultFolks who pay attention to my Facebook page or my Twitter account might remember that a couple of months ago, I announced I had been accepted to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. I’ve been hyperventilating over my good fortune since then, excited about the opportunity to work with and learn from amazing writers, to hone my craft and develop my current novel project, and — perhaps most of all — to spend ten solid days focusing on nothing but writing and the writing community.

Of course, I’ve also had work to do in the meantime: I’ve been fleshing out the story of the novel I plan to workshop there, I’ve been dipping into yet more research for that novel, and I’ve been reading work by some of the workshop faculty.

I’ve also been in touch with a few friends who’ll be at the conference as well, including Bonnie ZoBell (author of the story cycle What Happened Here), poet Caitlin Pryor, and poet Ash Bowen (Caitlyn and Ash are both fellow alumni of the creative writing doctoral program at my alma mater, the University of North Texas, and Ash — a Sewanee scholarship recipient this year! — is a former classmate of mine).

And, of course, I’ve been in touch with writer friends who’ve attended Sewanee before, getting tips on how to manage the onslaught of creative energy over the dozen days of the conference. (My favorite conversation was between two friends, one who suggested I bring my own linens and a mattress pad to guard against the bare-bones bedding of the conference dorm rooms, the other who told me not to bother because, as he put it, “Sheets are for sleeping. Who sleeps?”)

51XXaT9QCEL._UY500_This week, I’ve been finalizing plans: going over the daily schedules (which are chock full of readings, lectures, and panels, and that’s when we’re not in workshops or at social events!), working with Sewanee’s university bookstore to make sure that Hagridden is in stock at the conference (it will be!), and going over my packing list (I’m not far into that yet, but I know for certain I’ll be packing my new “Plot” tshirt from Out of Print).

I don’t plan to post from the conference much, unless something exceptionally exciting happens. I might toss up a photo-heavy post or two, but I’m going to be so focused on my own writing and the work of others that I doubt I’ll have the time — or the mental energy — to blog while I’m there. So except for those potential few posts, you can expect a couple of weeks of silence here on the blog, and in my other social media like Facebook and Twitter.

But don’t worry: before I leave for the conference, I’ll post a short excerpt from some of the new novel material I’ll be workshopping. And as soon as I’m back, you can expect a deluge of words and images here on the blog. So stay tuned, gang!

Ellen Urbani’s novel Landfall and your book club

Landfall-Cover-FINAL-web-sizedAwhile back, I had the privilege of getting an early peek at Ellen Urbani’s much-anticipated forthcoming novel, Landfall. Set in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, the novel is not so much about the storm but about the maelstrom of our human lives and, specifically, the sudden collision of two pairs of women, mothers and daughters, black lives and white lives, privilege and poverty. It’s a beautifully written story (you can read my blurb for it at the publisher’s website), and you’ll want to read it when it arrives in your bookstores this August.

But if you belong to a book club, you have an opportunity to enjoy more than the novel! Urbani and Forest Avenue Press are promoting a “50 in ’15 Challenge” — they’re looking to find at least one book club in each of the 50 states to host Landfall, and in return, book club members will get a range of cool extras: autographs, invitations to special Landfall events, a chance at discussing the book directly with the author (by Skype or possibly in person!), and an exclusive prologue to the novel only available to participating book clubs!

They’re calling it the “50 in ’15” because they’re looking to sign up 50 book clubs this year, but you don’t have to read it this year — you can put it on your calendar for 2016, so long as you sign up in 2015.

To get in on the fun, contact the author directly through her website, ellenurbani.com, before midnight on Dec. 31. And tell her I said hi!


Lidia Yuknavitch launches tshirts, and also her new novel, The Small Backs of Children

Last night, at Powell’s City of Books, the people of Portland, OR experienced magic.

When I say the people of Portland, I don’t literally mean the whole city, but I very nearly mean it. For those not in the know, Powell’s famously takes up an entire city block, and last night, our literary crowd climbed to the fourth floor and then consumed the whole floor. Some folks arrived more than four hours early; I arrived 45 minutes early and already it was standing-room only, eager fans pressed up against the stacks and winding down aisles. By event time, there were so many people trying to pack into the floor to witness this literary event that they started spilling down the stairwell, and eventually Powell’s had to close the doors to avoid breaking fire safety regulations.


It was 90 degrees outside, the umpteenth day in a brutal weeks-long heatwave, and inside, it felt nearly as hot, but none of us minded that much because we were all in the midst of literary magic.

Her name is Lidia Yuknavitch.

Girl playing in forest

Girl playing in forest

Last night, Lidia (I hope I can call her that — we know each other a little bit) launched her latest book — her second novel — The Small Backs of Children.

The bit she read was wonderful, a beautiful and haunting attention to a girl’s inner life in the midst of trauma and, later, a fascinating break to focus on the author: that’s right, the story of the “author” (not Lidia but kind of Lidia) is woven into this book as well. It’s not quite Vonnegutesque (it’s both more and less intimate, very much a narrative of the author’s inner life but told in the third person) but it reminds me a bit of that, like somehow Vonnegut-meets-Austen in terms of the perspective but all Lidia in terms of the voice.

“Yuknavitch uses language in a way that is so sensual it is almost sexual,” writes Genevieve Hudson for The Rumpus. “Her fierce verbal affronts, filled with invented words and portmanteaus, not only bring meta-fiction into the writing, it also creates the subversive sound bites that give her writing its unique contour. This is the Lidia stamp.”

When I got home, I couldn’t help but open the book and read the first few pages; it was hard to put down and I wound up reading the first chapter and part of the second. Then I whipped open my laptop and started working on my own novel; my favorite authors are the ones whose books inspire me put them down and write my own, and Yuknavitch is definitely on that list.

20150708_194054Of course, Lidia being Lidia, we couldn’t just celebrate her book. First, we had to sing happy birthday, because a friend of hers in the audience had a birthday yesterday as well, and Lidia likes to give her spotlight to others as often as she can.

Which she talked about at length, both before her reading and after, during the Q&A, which wasn’t really a Q&A but, at her request, just a conversation. (Some people asked how she was feeling, commented on how much they liked her tattoo, told her how they thought she was magic and they love her, to which she replied, “You’re magic too!” and “I love you, too.”) She talked about how, whenever she manages to pry open a door to some new opportunity, or to some new way of seeing the world, or to some new way of making art, she wedges her foot in that door and tries to hold it open for as many people as can get through. Which is something she says often, and to great applause.

She talked about the community of art and writing, the communal act of it, the shared experience of it. She talked about how we shouldn’t be trying to “transcend” others with our “special” experiences — we should be sharing our experiences so we all know — writers and readers and everyone — we all know that we aren’t alone.

She talked about love and creating and passion, about writing deep into the well of personal trauma, at least so long as it’s just for you, and then you can figure out what others need to hear.

She talked about her belief that we keep with us little pieces of every person we meet, and so “when something good happens to me, it happens to WE, too.”

She talked about moving on from one writing project to another, especially considering the deep emotional and creative investment demanded of our writing. She talked about the people we have to become to write the stories we have, or the stories we have to write to cope with the people we truly are, and then she spoke one of my favorite lines of the night, regarding putting your work out into the world and letting it go: “You shed a skin you don’t need anymore.”

After the conversation, her son gathered an armful of rolled black tshirts printed with the bright red cover of the novel, and he launched the tshirts into the crowd, who threw their arms in the air and shouted like they were at a sporting event or a concert, which, essentially, we were: before Lidia arrived, a few friends of mine tried to start a wave (though it was already too hot for many folks to participate), and when Lidia took the podium, the first thing she did was invite us to all join in singing (that birthday song I mentioned).

Then Powell’s opened the autograph table and by the time I’d gathered my satchel and hat from under my chair, the autograph line had wrapped clear to the back of the room and was starting around the back wall. Again, Powell’s takes up a whole city block, so within half a minute, Lidia had a line more than a block long.

And she smiled at every person she met, hugged many of them, took photos . . . .

Because she is magic.

Ryan Werner goes Soft

soft coverGang, if you want to read something truly innovative, check out Ryan Werner’s “shattered novella” Soft.

“Shattered novella” is what Ryan’s calling it, but really, it’s hard to know what to call this thing other than art. It is a novella, in the sense that it’s a unified narrative spanning a long period and covering a lot of pages, but it’s a novella in the form of a microfiction cycle, in the sense that each chapter stands alone as a tiny glimpse into these lives. But they’re barely even glimpses, really — even “microfiction” feels too large for these moments. They’re more like (as Will Crain points out on Corrective Lenses in “Our Chapbook Could Be Your Life: An interview with Ryan Werner“) tweets or Facebook statuses, but I worry that’s selling the book short. Soft isn’t at all that glib or gimmicky. “It was always more ‘Amy Hempel meets Steven Wright’ for me than ‘Facebook status,'” Ryan says in the Corrective Lenses interview, “but it’s definitely nice that how I write has dovetailed with how people receive information these days. I’ve always liked tiny things or, conversely, big things made up of a million tiny parts.”

It’s a stunning project and well worth checking out.

Here’s a blurb that’s not really from Nick Hornby (it’s one of the “fake blurbs from real authors that you may treat as fact if it’ll make you buy my goddamn book”):

I shared a Facebook status Ryan Werner wrote one time. It was about the Rick Derringer song ‘Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo.’ This book is about music and girls. Really groundbreaking stuff, I’m sure. — Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity.

(True story #1: Soft really is about music and girls. True story #2: Ryan and I really did once engage in a brief Facebook exchange with the real Nick Hornby, and it really was about music.)

You can preview the first 36 chapters of Soft (which sounds like a lot of reading but these chapters are often a few sentences each — they’re great for online reading) on Ryan Werner’s website.

soft collage

SummerbruiseAnd you can buy the whole book now from Passenger Side Books. Or, if you’re in the Midwest or on the Eastern Seaboard, you can buy it directly from Ryan himself when he’s out on book tour this month.

(PS: Sorry for the post title, Ryan. You knew I had to go there.)

(PPS: Thanks, Ryan, for the shout-out in the interview.)

(PPPS: I met Nick Hornby once and he signed my cast, and I don’t think Ryan has ever stopped being jealous of that.)

Hagridden cut through Kindle like a Bowie knife

You all are amazing!

Last week, my publisher offered Hagridden for free on Kindle, and in those few weekdays, more than 500 of you grabbed a digital copy of my book! That sudden momentum rocketed Hagridden up through the overall Kindle ranks, and y’all drove Hagridden to #1 in the War genre for Kindle books (it is set in the Civil War, after all).

I’m over the moon, gang. Thank you all!

Of course, the digital version is still just $4.95, and if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber or you have access to the Kindle Lending Library (via Amazon Prime), you can still download Hagridden for free.

And if you’re one of those 500+ new readers from last week — or if you’re one of the hundreds of existing readers who’ve bought Hagridden or borrow it from your library — I hope you enjoy the book. I hope you tell friends you enjoyed the book, and maybe buy them a copy as a gift. I hope you tell your local library to put a copy on their shelves. I hope you tweet about it (use the hashtag #Hagridden), and maybe head over to the book’s Facebook page and share that with your social media pals.

And whenever you get a chance, hop online and review it on Amazon, or in Goodreads, or wherever you like. Loved it or hated it, either way — readers like to know how other readers are responding to the work, so you’re helping folks out when you leave a review. And small-press publishers, who aren’t just in this for the dollars but actually care about producing art, like to know how their work is being received out there.

The Jersey Devil celebrates the 4th by dropping burnt hot dogs for its pet dinosaur

JDP cover July 2015Happy barbecue and sky-explosions, America!

So how does Jersey Devil Press celebrate? The AMERICAN way! We ride wild mutant hogs, swallow bees, practice a little alchemy, hit the nudie bar of the undead, and build really big walls. Just like our Founding Fathers did.

And yes, the Jersey Devil does indeed now have a pet Brontosaurus (because the Brontosaurus is back, baby!) courtesy of cover artist Jon Snoek.

So dive into the July issue, and party like it’s 1776!

Hagridden is FREE on Kindle this week

Hagridden is free this week only!

Hagridden is free this week only!

I’ve been posting about this on Facebook and Twitter since yesterday — and loads of kind friends and fans have been sharing the news as well — but in case you hadn’t heard:

Hagridden is free!

That’s right: it’s Fourth of July Week, and for this week only, my independent publisher, Columbus Press, has given everyone the freedom to download the Kindle edition of Hagridden for zero money. You don’t even have to pay taxes!

(See what I did there? Happy Fourth, Americans!)

So if you haven’t read my novel yet, now’s your chance. Loads of folks have already downloaded their copies, and they’ve helped launch Hagridden to #1 among war-genre novels on the free Kindle store (and, as of this post, we’re nearing the top 500 overall!). HUGE thanks to all those readers!

But I’ve been asking two favors of folks who download the freebie, just to show our thanks to Columbus Press:

  1. When you finish the book, leave a review of it somewhere. On Amazon, or in Goodreads, or on your blog. Wherever. Loved it or hated it, either way — readers like to know how other readers are responding to the work, so you’re helping folks out when you leave a review. And small-press publishers, who aren’t just in this for the dollars but actually care about producing art, like to know how their work is being received out there.
  2. And if you get the free ebook of Hagridden and love it, maybe buy a hard copy, too. It doesn’t have to be right away. It doesn’t even have to be for yourself — you can buy it as a gift and share that book you liked with a friend. You also don’t have to buy the hard copy from Amazon; in fact, I’d encourage you to buy one from your local indie bookstore or, if you shop online, from Powells.com. But however and whenever you decide to get a hard copy, it’d be a nice gesture to my publisher.

Either way, everyone, get on Twitter and, using the hashtag #Hagridden, send a quick thanks to @ColumbusPress for offering y’all this freebie this week! Or, if you’re not on Twitter, head over to the Contact page on the Hagridden website and thank them there.

Crayons, conflicts, crises, and catastrophes: how I’m outlining my new novel

When I was in grad school, I once participated in a group presentation on Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I forget what all the group as a whole wound up saying, but I remember clearly that my first instinct was to focus on that famous first chapter, where the author of the book (Vonnegut himself?) explains why and how he went about telling this story about the bombing of Dresden in WWII and poor Billy Pilgrim coming unstuck in time as a consequence.

I was interested in the narrative device of opening with a metafictional prologue like that, with the voice that Vonnegut establishes in that chapter, with that chapter’s relationship to the author’s later appearance in Billy Pilgrim’s story. In order to sort those issues out, I realized I would need some kind of outline for my part of the presentation, and in a flash of insight, I realized that the text itself had provided me with one. It’s right there in Chapter 1, in the author’s own words:

The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper. I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.

I didn’t have any wallpaper handy, but I popped out to the local Walmart and picked up a roll of contact paper. (Close enough, I figured.) And I borrowed my wife’s (then-fiancée’s) crayons from her art set, and I recreated Vonnegut’s own outline.

I’m sad to say that I don’t know what happened to it. I know I kept it, but where it’s gone in all our various moves in the 15 years since I drew it, I can’t recall. (That’s okay: grab some crayons and make your own!) But I was thinking about that graph today, and about Vonnegut’s famous “shapes of stories” lecture, and about story arcs and plot points and outlines.

This coming week, I have set aside my writing time for outlining my new novel. It’s the one I’m taking to workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference next month, and while I know where the story is headed and I’ve written and revised and thrown away a handful of outlines already, I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle the various narrative lines I’ve created.

(Okay, these Scrivener notes aren’t “outlines” as one might normally think of them, but it’s how I work on the computer.)

Then, on Friday, I got the current issue of Poets & Writers, and I found the “Literary Life” article by Benjamin Percy, “Preparing for the Worst: The Negatively Framed Outline.” (I’m sad to say the article isn’t available online, but get thee to a library or bookstore and look on page 23 of the July/August 2015 issue of P&W.)

Before this week, I’d been leaving off the outline and focusing on producing content, on letting the story evolve at its own pace and getting to know at least one of my characters as I explored his backstory on the page. I’d been playing out the organic line and seeing what came of it, and I’ve been getting great results — this character is really coming to life. But I was also thinking about the story to come, watching it recede the closer I got to it, like a dolly zoom in a horror film, and I was wondering just how big this book was going to get. How much content I was going to wind up producing only to throw it away later.

I was feeling the need for some sense of order, and then I read the Percy article in P&W, which opens with this sentence: “When I talk about the bloody business of writing fiction, I sometimes reference the act of mapmaking, blueprinting, planning out a story before beginning it.”

And I remembered Vonnegut’s crayons. I remembered Bill Roorbach’s “mapping the story” exercise (a couple of weeks ago, I was in Google Maps plotting the towns where the early action is set; I even got into GIMP and designed the floorplan of a character’s home, just to orient myself). I remembered my old screenwriting course in grad school, the lessons I learned about three-act structure and climactic moments and turning points in the plot.

So today, ahead of schedule, I found a brown paper bag from my local comic book store, I slit it open longwise and spread it out, and I started drawing an outline (the image below isn’t clickable, because it might contain spoilers — zoom in at your own risk).


It’s not terribly colorful at the moment — I’m just working with pencil and black Sharpie — but it’s a version of something I’m toying with. The longest line is the protagonist, and he’s following the classic story arc of a long rising action toward a climactic moment, followed by a fairly rapid denouement.

The second line picks up at the first turning point and shows the arc of a secondary character, a lowly member of the protagonist’s gang who I’m planning to use as a kind of “Greek chorus” figure, chronicling the events from other perspectives. But he’s also a human being who plays a role in the events of the story, so he gets an arc, too, albeit a shorter one.

The third line is the antagonist, whom we’ll probably meet before the midway point in the story but I’ve put his introduction there for the time being because that’s when I think he’ll become a major, active force in the story. (Thanks, too, to author Ben Boulden — my cousin! — for pointing me in the direction of a historical figure who has become the basis for this antagonist. Another thing I’ve figured out ion the past week or so!)

You’ll notice that all three lines rise to the same climactic moment, everyone’s story coming to a head at once. That doesn’t mean they have the same climax — I’m hoping for some layers here — but in terms of story, there is one major event that’s going to occur in the vicinity of the 3/4 mark, and everything will unravel from there.

What’s less obvious are the pencilled-in mini-arcs, a rising and climax and falling action in each quarter of the chart. There are several other characters I’m working with in this book, and they’ll all have their arcs, too, some of which will be tied to the main arc but some of which will rise and resolve in tighter, more contained subplots. Those are some of the things I’ll be working out this coming week.

One other thing I’ve been thinking about is the relationship between external and internal conflict, and that’s probably where I’ll start breaking out colors. For this, I’m returning to a familiar favorite, Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction. Her discussion of how to balance internal and external conflict and her concrete advice on bringing each to its own climactic moment (or “crisis action”) is fantastically practical:

External conflict is always resolved by a visible crisis action, no matter how small that action may be. Readers must be able to see the crisis action. It must happen in the external world of the story, like the runner winning the race or Cinderella sliding her foot into the slipper. [. . .] If exterior conflicts are resolved by an exterior crisis action, it is equally true that interior conflicts are resolved inside a character or in some secondary reflection of a character’s internal thoughts, such as dialogue or analysis by a narrator or author. If Cinderella’s internal conflict is Am I worthy of love? then the internal crisis occurs when she decides to put her foot in the shoe and risk being recognized and loved by the prince. The crisis is the moment she decided to act. [. . .] Either way the internal crisis takes place inside a character, and that leads to the external crisis action.

I’ve long known what the main external climax, or crisis action, is going to be in this novel, and I’ve known a few of the minor external crisis actions, too. But the internal crises are trickier, and it’s one reason I was setting aside plot and just exploring character the past few weeks: I was trying to get inside to find the motivations and internal conflicts.

And that brings me back to the Percy article in P&W. The title, “Preparing for the Worst,” is a reference to the worst-case scenario for characters: “If you know your higher-order goal, and if you know your character’s weaknesses, the calculus isn’t complicated.”

Percy then launches into an analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark: We find out in the opening sequence that Indiana Jones has a mortal terror of snakes. Later, as Indy gets involved in the main plot, Percy argues that while Indy’s main goal is to find the Ark, he’s doing so mostly to prevent the Ark from falling into the hands of the Nazis. So, about two-thirds or so into the film, where does he find the Ark? In a pit full of asps. And once he hoists the Ark up out of the snakepit, he discovers that the Nazis are there waiting. They steal the Ark and seal Indy in the pit.

He has lost the Ark — and he might lose his life to the thing he fears more than a firing squad: “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Worst-case scenario: check.

I started thinking about my protagonist’s worst fears, the main internal conflict I had discovered over the past few weeks, and I realized that the main crisis action actually had nothing to do with that internal conflict. So how to bring his internal conflict to a reasonable crisis point? I played Percy’s game, and based just on the few dozen pages I’ve written about this character’s backstory, I found his worst fears and realized how I could connect those to his situation at the external crisis point. So the internal and external conflicts can get resolved not at the same time, not through the same action, but at least in concert with each other. And, exactly as Kercheval suggests, the internal crisis point is going to lead to the external crisis point.

It’s been an illuminating couple of days, folks, and it’s all been focused on the thing I struggle with most: plot. But with Percy’s “worst-case scenario” exercise and his “Negatively Framed Outline” article, combined with Kercheval’s layered story arcs of external and internal conflict and Vonnegut’s crayons and story shapes, I’m beginning to see the bigger picture on this new novel.

With love

I have a couple of blog posts I’ve been working on lately, including one about the difficulties of writing my new novel and a new addition to my Research for Fiction series. I had planned to finish and post at least one of those today.

But instead, I want to devote today to justice and equality in America.


This has little to do with writing or teaching, the usual purviews of my blog. But it has everything to do with humanity, and it’s too important a moment in our nation’s history to leave unremarked here.

We have a long way to go, America. We probably will always have a long way to go. But the march of progress goes on, and today we made a huge stride.