Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Month: November 2015

Developing Character Through Movement & Gesture

Lately, I’ve been focusing on an aspect of character development in my own work that I’ve noticed in stories that catch my attention, especially in flash fiction: revealing character through embodied movement.[1]  A character’s lifelike qualities emerge vividly out of how she occupies the narrative space. The brevity and compression of flash allows writers to experiment with form and structure with few constraints. In respect to embodied movement, as with any aspect of fiction, the writing and the words carry more freight. One of the more memorable examples is Ron Carlson’s “The Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” The whole piece is a wonderful work of characterization, yearning, emotion, and movement in a confined space:

He worked one dress shoe off with the other, and then held it on a toe as long as he could. The air cooled his arch perfectly, and he thought that: perfect. Evaporation was such a stunning feature of life on earth. Water rises into the air. Now he opened his mouth and then a little wider than was comfortable. [2]

Another is Kathy Fish’s lovely “Tenderoni” from Smokelong Quarterly, where a young woman watches her boyfriend figure out how to move a dead kitten off the road:

My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade which has probably been cancelled anyway. Ahead, Mark’s skinny calves pump, his day glo rain poncho flaps behind him like a flag. He stops and gets off the bike and I catch up to him.

“Oh, damn,” I say. “A kitty.”

“It looks sort of lumpy,” he says. There’s a drop of rain holding on to the tip of his nose and steam rising from his shoulders. “We should move it.”[3]

We know nothing about this couples’ ages, not much about how they look, or exactly where they are. It’s raining, they want to see a parade, they ride bicycles. One likes to smoke, one wears glasses. They are tender with one another. Readers feel like they share something intimate and significant with these people. Most of what we learn about them is from how they move and act and in what they say to one another.

Characters move through space and display physical characteristics, emotional expressions, and psychological states. They also convey their intellect, sexuality, humor, mood, opinions, trauma, and the status of their relationships. How a character conducts herself in the story tells us more than a description. We typically take advantage of dialogue as an opportunity for subtext, but movement can enrich characterization without having to rely on explication. When we show how a character emotes, for example, the disparity between their inner lives and their exterior responses contribute to tension and conflict. Nancy Stohlman in The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories cleverly borrows most everything the story needs with a one-word title, “Samson” and writes twenty-one more words of precise movement and dialogue:

“Don’t worry, we’ll both do it,” Delilah said, reaching for the hair clippers on the counter next to the lice shampoo.” [4]

How a character or reader changes and transforms over time in the narrative space has something to do with embodiment and movement, even if there is little to no embodiment and/or restricted movement. They are enabled to act in some way. A character’s movement also influences how time dilates and constricts, speeds up and slows down. This is how character movement can regulate pacing and momentum.

In “Abbreviated Glossary” Gay Degani uses concise, stark sentences to convey an emotionally charged story in 150 words that takes place over eight months:

Pact:

His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.

Hope:

My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.[5]

Amelia Gray in “House Heart” tells the story of how a couple lures a woman to their home and traps her in the ductwork. For one woman, her whole world becomes the visible interior of the house and how she dwells in it with her husband and this new, determined presence. For another woman, her space is confined to the interior of a house and the spaces she creates:

We licked each other’s faces, listening to the girl above us. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in he main passage, but that in the smaller lines, she would have to slide on her belly, arms outstretched, pulling herself forward.[6]

Eventually, everyone’s focus narrows to the interior where violations of hospitality play out.

Character development through movement is another way for our characters to gain more presence, mass, and substance. A young, recently injured gymnast is going to move very differently than his older brother who is a former heavyweight class wrestler and makes glass for a living. There are also characters we cannot help but remember always, not so much for the way they look but for their presence and how they bear themselves in a story.

 

[1] Bradley, April. First published as “Character Development & Movement.” Fiction Flash Fiction Chronicles. July 3, 2015. http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/character-development-movement-in-fiction/
[2] Carlson, Robert. “Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas & Robert Shapard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 62-63.
[3] Fish, Kathy. “Tenderoni.” Smokelong Quarterly. Issue 28. October 2, 2008 Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.smokelong.com/flash/kathyfish22.asp
[4] Stohlman, Nancy. “Samson.” The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Magill SA, Australia: A Pure Slush Book, 2014, 86.
[5] Degani, Gay. “Abbreviated Glossary.” Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century. Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.melusine21cent.com/mag/node/251
[6] Gray, Amelia. “House Heart.” Gunshot: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 16.

 

 

 

 

Women Who Flash Their Lit Series

Women Who Flash Their Lit is an online forum featuring women authors who write flash fiction and influence its form. Writers such as Gessy Alvarez, Shinjini Bhattacharjee, Leesa Cross Smith, Gay Degani, Kathy Fish, Rosie Forrest, Ashley Inguanta, Jayne Martin, Kona Morris, Sally Reno, Nancy Stohlman, and Meg Tuite join Bartleby Snopes to discuss their experiences, writing, and opinions on flash fiction accompanied by reviews of authors’ work, interviews, video, recored readings, and art. Look for the published forum here online in the summer of 2016 and for ongoing features and interviews about women who write flash fiction.

November 17, 2015

(Left to right) Kathy Fish, Meg Tuite, Nancy Stohlman, and Kona Morris discuss some topics featured in Bartleby Snopes Women Who Flash Their Lit Forum in February 2016 that also includes Gessy Alvarez, Shinjini Bhattacharjee, Leesa Cross-Smith, Gay Degani, Rosie Forrest, Ashley Inguanta, Jayne Martin, and Sally Reno. Filmed at The Mercury Cafe, Denver, Colorado 17 November 2015.

 

So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds: Christopher D. DiCicco (Contributor Series Interview Series #8)

Christopher D. DiCicco’s  “Heavy Shoes” won our September 2013 Story Of The Month competition. It’s a fine piece of writing among so many wonderful and gorgeously rendered stories included in his new collection So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds published by Hypertropic Press www.hypertrophicpress.com .  Each of these stories opens up worlds of longing, beauty, and grief among characters who walk out of the pages into the world. Readers recognize their own fault lines, brokenness, yearning, sweetness, and love reflected in these characters Christopher creates. It was a pleasure to read and re-read this book, and what luck to catch an interview Christopher.*

 

SMMSLITC Dicicco cover smaller

 

It’s a tremendous collection of forty-five short, short stories. How did you choose the first story to place in the collection, and how did you select the title story?

I’m happy you asked that. The title story was my doing. The first story was not. The first story “Talk of Fire” is one I was actually apprehensive about because I’m a schoolteacher. Yeah, of course it’s metaphorical in nature, like a lot of my pieces, but like a lot of my pieces, there’s still a strong element of realism to it. The idea of starting my book with a college student who lights himself on fire because he wants to hear his words crackle, well, it made me uneasy. My editors though believed it was a piece that worked as a preface to the rest of the collection; that the metaphor, the realism, worked for what was to come next in the collection. And in the end, I agreed. I want to hear my words crackle too. As for the title story, I felt “So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds” captured my offbeat, minimal approach. It’s a favorite story of mine. It has a lot of the elements I enjoy it, fantasy, realism, potential truths, no answers, big questions. I like that about fiction; that, like in real life where some of the biggest events go unexplained, unanswered, in fiction the fantastical elements can be just as crazy and real and unexplainable. It’s nuts and beautiful.

 

Most of your stories are in first person, yet, the ones presented in second and third are just as strong. How deliberate are you in perspective? How do you determine it? Do you experiment? There’s these few lines in “A Literary God (In Love)” on page 200 that comes off a bit meta. I’m a fan of the character Sara. Her response to the narrator is what I’ve grown to expect from her:

I’m a first-person omniscient narrator because reading my story, reading it aloud to myself, it’s like having God whisper the answers to all my questions, but better because I’m the one doing it. They’re my answers. . . Me telling it. “Sara later corrects the narrator and says, “Excuse me, your book? It’s our story. It’s our book.”

Does this story have much to do about your thoughts on narrative perspective?

Yes, I am very deliberate in perspective. The first-person removed narrator is my favorite. First-person is kind of like acting, you lose yourself in a role and develop your character with every movement you make. It’s like riding a fixie bicycle. I’d hate to use that example, but it holds pretty firm. If you’ve never ridden one before, the bicycle is set on a fixed gear where the chain is as simple and pure as it gets, and so it’s a personal ride; in that, every move you make determines the ride. If you pedal fast, you ride fast. If you slow your left leg, the ride pulls left and hesitates. And the first-person reminds me of that. It’s incredibly responsive. The story develops—reacts—based on each word your narrator spits out. And it’s great to decide you’re the father or the daughter or the son and then tell a story about the other. I love that. You tell a story about someone else, and in doing so you tell a story about yourself—the first person narrator. Man, I love point of view. Did you notice in “Pennsylvania is No Concern” that I use First-Person and Third Person Limited? That was great for me. And in “Why the Wolves Take the Calves First,” getting to develop a tough heart-broken but sensitive father, who notices the circle of life and the brutal honesty in nature—to have him narrate and comment on things that someone like him would notice—that’s just so much fun for me. That’s the story. So, does that kind of reflect “A Literary God (in Love)”? Maybe it does. I suppose the story does have a bit to do with my thoughts on perspective because in the end it’s an illusion, right? It’s a technique. But the funny thing is, I don’t usually think of that while I’m writing. When I’m writing, I tend to believe it, that it’s real, that it’s my story to tell. I’m the narrator even if it means I’m not me at all.

Your stories have strong, emotionally anchored endings. Your endings are a strength of your craft. How do you know when the ending is just right?

Thank you for saying so. My endings start by feel. For the most part, I know when it’s time. I wish there were more to it. I mean, there is, but the first part of it, the big part, is an organic conclusion for me. It grows out of the story, and I pluck it up. Once I have it, then I finesse it, but not as much as you might think.  Understanding what a strong ending is and what it comes equipped with is important. It allows it to happen. My endings often coincide with my themes. They’re disappointment, failings, awful impossible things that the narrator acknowledges. Those are things I know. Some from personal experience, some from observation. It’s what I know. But it’s not all depressing. A good ending has so much more that comes after it, but that’s up to the reader, to the story that keeps on even after the writing stops.

How do you come up with titles?

I subscribe to two different philosophies concerning titles. First, titles can be an act of naming. The idea is that you look at some piece of art whether it be a child, a song, or a story, and you name it. You name what it is, what it will become, and what it should always be. The second philosophy, the one I use more often, is the title is the very first line. It is the beginning, the start of everything, and the part where you call the reader over, saying, “Hey, so my mother, she lives in clouds” or “Heavy shoes, my girlfriend has the heaviest, let me tell you.” And then you explain. You show them what you mean, and that’s your story.

I have several favorites among this collection. It’s impossible to select one. Talk of Fire” blew me away as did the title story. “Life Where You Want It” is another favorite as is “I Think I’m Going To Make It,” “Your Uncle Scott Is A Lake Monster,” “A Bucks Devil and the County Ghost,” “Future Perfect,” “Even Toy Swords,” and “Her Heart A Thundering Steed.”  What about you?

You’re not the first person to ask me this, so you’d think I’d have a good answer, but it’s still the same–I’m terrible at playing favorites. I can be incredibly pleased by the smallest of aspects of a given story. A phrase can drive me wild. An awkward simile and I’m in love. It’s true. That’s all it takes for me to like a story, a really good line. It’s terrible—but that’s the truth of it. In “Life Where You Want It” the ending, it makes me happy every time I read it. And so does the line “He’s hoping they’ll let him on, as if he were some young Dominic Dillianhaul from Nebraska who has never played the game before, as if he were someone different and new.” I love that name. I love “Future Perfect” It’s my favorite. And so are a thousand other lines that I’m still waiting to write.

Do your children like your stories? Do they help with critique?

No, neither of my sons help yet. Maybe one day. I have a writing group though with some really good friends and even greater writers. Matthew Kabik, Daniel Difranco, and Zachary Woodard point me in the right direction, and it worked well for a while. Lately though the writing group has kind of gone on a hiatus, which is sad for me, but part of the evolution of such things I suppose.

What’s next besides the whirlwind life of a literary debutante?

More stories. It’s not something I can stop. I think in stories, dream in stories, and, I love creating them. But yeah, I worked on some poems this past summer, and they’re very personal, but they’re also very story-like in many ways. I wouldn’t mind finishing those up when the mood arises.  But really, I’m dying to write some new stories. That’s all I really want to do—drink a cup of coffee (in the early morning) and write a story that makes me smile. Did I mention that I write for me? I’m terribly selfish—and I’m not planning on changing anytime soon.

 

DiCicco head shotChristopher D. DiCicco received his Bachelors in English/Education from Temple University and his MFA  in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. When Christopher David DiCicco writes–he reads it aloud. Sometimes he writes via the voice memo feature on his iPhone–while driving. If you were to hear his writing, it sounds like traffic and going places, sudden stops, and–sometimes–it sounds like the rain. The best time to write is in the morning. This is a universal truth that holds true only to him, and Christopher knows it. If you write at a different time–good for you. You are even more universal. Universal is good–like writing stories in the rain.  Find Christopher online at www.cddicicco.com and on Twitter @ChrisDiCicco

*Join Christopher and Hypertropic Press at Arcadia University  in The Knight Seminar Room tomorrow, November 13 at 4:30 for a Writer’s Workshop on the ins and outs of letter querying.

Christopher’s book launch begins at 7pm in the Rose Room of Grey Towers Castle.

So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds  is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Off Somewhere with Z.Z. Boone (Contributor Interview Series #7)

In September 2013, Z.Z. Boone’s “Kat” appeared in Bartleby SnopesIt was a unique story with an engaging voice that clearly demonstrated Boooff somewhere zz boonene’s talents as a fiction writer. Two years later, Boone is released his first collection of short fiction, Off Somewhere, available on November 17th through Whitepoint Press.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Z.Z. about his new book and the status of literary magazines. Here’s what Z.Z. had to say.

Tell us a little about how Off Somewhere came together. Did you set out to write a collection, or is this a collection of what you wrote?

I’m not big on planning. It’s kind of how I write. One sentence and then a second one based on the first. So I had all these stories that I’d written over the years, and I thought about how cool it would be if I could find somebody to publish them. A book that I could give people that would make future gift giving a snap. So I sent the collection out to every agent and every publisher in existence and I got pretty much the same response: No. Except then I lucked upon the brilliant Lisa De Niscia at Whitepoint Press and she apparently liked the stories and decided to chance it.

Character-wise, Off Somewhere feels like a pretty eclectic collection. Where do you find the inspiration for your characters?

I read once that if you see a face that you don’t recognize in a dream, it’s because it’s a combination of all the different faces floating around inside your head. I think for most writers it’s the same with their characters. I might start with someone I know well because it makes the dialogue easier to write. Then I’ll throw in a few characteristics from some stranger I spotted this morning. Maybe I’ll call back that guy from high school who used to throw my books down the stairs. Or the woman in the Amtak “quiet car” who wouldn’t stop taking on her phone. I’ll mix them together and see what I get.

Who is your favorite character from the collection? If you could punch one character in the face, who would it be?

Well obviously I’m not going to punch any female characters in the face because that’s how a guy gets in trouble. So I guess it would be the narrator in “Neutral Ground” who tries to manipulate Bianca into becoming a little less black, a bit less African American. The dumb bastard has love so close at hand, but he’s like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Unsatisfied with near-perfection.

The bullshit answer regarding my favorite character is that they’re all my favorite. But I read the story “Pitching” a lot, and each time I do my heart goes out to Patrick’s unnamed brother, that poor guy destined to always live in the shadows. Even when he manages to save his brother’s pregnant, cast-aside ex-girlfriend from humiliation, he fails at winning her devotion.

Your stories often mix humor with some rather delicate situations. How do you create this balance without disrupting the integrity of what you are trying to achieve with the story?  

I guess I’m a genius.

Seriously though, I just tell a story, or more accurately I let the story tell itself. If I’m lucky, if the stars are aligned that day, I wind up with something that looks like real life but is hopefully more tense, more immediate. And like real life, one minute your heart is broken because the person you love has just flipped you off, and the next minute you see a fat guy slip on a sheet of ice and you wet your pants laughing.

I first became aware of your work when you submitted “Kat” to Bartleby Snopes. What role do lit mags currently play in your own writing career and in the literary world in general?

I’m insanely in love with literary magazines. I’m also rather old-school, so I especially get off on print. I subscribe to a bunch, and when I see that fresh copy of New Ohio Review, or 2 Bridges, or Eleven Eleven, I’m practically orgasmic. I can get, say, a collection of Alice Munro stories and love every one of them, but by now I know what to expect. Not so with lit mags. Voice, tone, and style are as varied as the treats in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

What’s next for Z.Z. Boone?

As I said, I’m not big on planning. I’m hoping to have a second collection of short stories before too terribly long, but the creative art of writing has a tremendously large backdoor and a writer never knows what might walk in.

zz booneZ.Z. Boone lives in Connecticut with novelist Tricia Bauer and their daughter, Lia. His work has appeared in literary magazines including Bartleby Snopes, Berkeley Fiction Review, the Adroit Journal, the Roanoke Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The MacGuffin, and Weave. Z.Z. currently teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University. He can be checked out at http://zzboone.wix.com/fiction.