Tag Archives: fiction

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Orca Blog for July: Watching a Movie Like a Writer

Quote of the Week: Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story

As much as I try to educate writers about writing through writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this painfully true in the last week when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!

This seems to be how most people live now; they understand and think through image, not words or concepts. Even some writers understand writing better through images. And I believe most writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the storytelling craft.

Visual media has a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. (And keep in mind that a primary goal of writing is to create an image in the mind of a reader.) It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into images. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer. There’s no need to parse meaning to create images—that part is done for you, and allows for immediate identification with the characters in the story.

Writers need to know both ways of communicating. Which is why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.

The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Not surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.

McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through a series of inciting incidents and turning points, and how that tension is heightened by creating gaps between the viewer’s (reader’s) expectation and the actual results of actions.

Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the first inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much poor writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)

Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.

– JP

K. at Liberation: An Interview with David Southard

“As Najwa Karim awoke one morning from a troubled sleep she found herself transformed in her bed into Franz Kafka. She did not know this name, this face, this body, not then, of course; that came later, after the riots and arrest and torture.”

The opening lines of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” are some of the most famous in the history of literature, so to adapt them for a modern novella is, at best, a risky proposition, subject to the criticism of purists as well as pundits. And to make the protagonist a woman, in fact a Muslim woman, is about as risky as a white male author can get in today’s politicized literary climate. But to read David Southard’s K. at Liberation is to read a work in which identities are subjugated to ideas, and labels are rendered unimportant while exploring an individual’s role in a larger society. There are truths that go deeper than what’s discussed in popular culture, and Southard is not afraid to uncover them. In that regard the risk taking never stops. Southard’s narrative challenges throughout. At 90 pages, it’s a fast, but engrossing read.

Najwa K., like many good protagonists, is a reluctant participant. In her particular situation, it’s the political upheaval in a Middle East city, where the population seeks to overthrow a repressive regime. Her character mimics Kafka, who, it seems, was a reluctant participant in just about every endeavor presented in his life. Najwa, though, is much more willing to engage the world around her, and she struggles with its conflicts, dealing with both a traditional family and progressive friends, while also dabbling in fantastical fiction of the type Kafka produced—oh, and dealing with waking up in a strange man’s body.

Southard makes it work by maintaining a tight focus on his protagonist. Najwa is not Kafka reborn, nor is she a mere face in the crowd, but is a thinking, evolving human being.

As I’ve worked with David Southard while editing at another literary journal, I took the opportunity to pose a few questions about the genesis and content of this remarkable book.


Joe Ponepinto: How did you come to tell the story through the character of Najwa, who is Muslim, particularly in this time when authors are regularly called out for “appropriating” characters from other cultures? What’s your familiarity with Islam and the Middle East?

David Southard: I hate to rely on what must surely be an outdated platitude about an old concept of creativity, but I didn’t really choose my character; she appeared. I took a course on Kafka when I was an undergraduate student some 15 years ago. My friend, a young woman who shares the same initials as my protagonist, came to class one day and said that she woke up feeling Kafkaesque and I wrote the first paragraph of a story where she woke up as Kafka instead of Gregor Samsa waking up as a bug. Nothing came of it, and soon after finishing school I stopped trying to write fiction. The story stuck with me nonetheless. It wasn’t until I was reading about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that Najwa started to form. After that, I did what I imagined any good writer tries to do—write a good and honest story. 

To do that meant research and care. I had already read the Quran and some collections of Hadith, and revisited them a little to help flush out a few of the supporting characters, but most of my research was on the Arab Spring and on Kafka’s life. In both, I found the driving force of this novel, which is about the fight for autonomy for one’s own authority, the fight against control, whether it be an overbearing patriarch or a suffocating autocracy. 

I have no interest in pushing stereotypes or staking a claim to a single character or even a single narrative somehow representing all of a culture or all of a historical event. I don’t feel that this book does that, though I suppose that is up for readers to decide. I hope they find something redemptive, something informative in reading it, something that makes them feel less alone. 

J.P.: This aspect seems particularly critical since you present Najwa as a nonbeliever, a woman who lives in what appears to be a Middle Eastern city in which a strict religious culture dominates. You write, “She had found little escape in Islam, though she prayed for it as a child, asked God to grant her some measure of belief. Maybe she could have shared that with Father or Fatimah or found some other connection to the world. But she could not fake those feelings. Prayer did little, practice even less.” I understand this may be a parallel to Kafka’s life.

D.S.: Kafka’s relationship to religion is still being debated among scholars, which exemplifies the beauty in the unknown, unexplained, and interpretive in Kafka’s writing. I think there are works that clearly show him dealing with aspects of Judaism, both culturally and religiously. The quote capture something a lot of people feel, including Kafka and myself, and that is the existential abeyance of seeing how people connect to being in the world while you exist outside of it and know you cannot use one of the oldest of tools to be a part of it.  

J.P.: Can you discuss some of the other parallels between Najwa’s life and Kafka’s. For example, the publication she writes for is named Kafia! (Enough!). They both write fantastical stories. Toward the end, Najwa succumbs to what appears to be tuberculosis.

D.S.: Both Kafka and Najwa deal with a father who seeks to control their lives. Both feel an inexplicable drive to write fiction. Both are trapped by a sense of guilt. Both seek redemption in a world that seems intent on refusing such redemption or is, at best, indifferent to the possibility. In all of these ways, the character of Najwa mirrors Kafka; or more accurately, she mirrors a great deal of his writing which was so much more than mere biography. 

J.P.: Najwa/Kafka becomes a participant in what appears to be an Arab Spring-type uprising. How does this tie into Kafka’s life, or does it?

D.S.: This, because Najwa the character is based on Kafka and his work, ties to both of their lives, and, I hope, to our own. The uprising is the real-world actualization of self-determination, at least the fight for it. The action we see taken in the world might spur the existential one within, as opposed to the other way around, which is how a lot of us stay trapped in our heads. We think if we can change ourselves than we can put that change into action. Sometimes, we need to act first in order to change ourselves.   

Orca Blog for May: Your Critical First Impression

Most writers know that readers for literary journals have to review hundreds of submissions. In practical terms this means readers may only give each submission a paragraph or two to make a good impression before deciding to reject or consider the piece further. That doesn’t give a writer much of a chance. So what should a writer try to do to engage an Orca reader?

Your opening can establish character, setting, point of view, conflict, and other aspects. But more importantly it must establish the voice of the story, and create some connection to the character’s situation, also known as the stakes.

Let’s look at a couple of examples, one that doesn’t quite work, and one that does:

Here’s a first paragraph, written by me to approximate many of the stories we receive in our submission queue:

Jim Stone walked past the gates of O’Hare’s spacious Terminal B, checking his cell, searching for a restaurant he and his wife could go to after work; he had something important to tell her, and the right place would make it go more smoothly. It was his first week on the job. At this hour there were only two people in the waiting area—a young man sitting in a gray chair reading a book, and an old woman in a green coat with a leather bag on her lap.

I see dozens of stories that start off this way. Technically there’s nothing wrong with them. Above, we have character, setting, and even a hint to the story’s inherent conflict. But what’s missing is subtext. The details in this opening are mostly exterior.

Now here’s the first paragraph of Rachel Cusk’s Outline:

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.

There are subtle clues in this paragraph that tell me the writer is immersed in the characters and the story. Exterior details are tied to interior reactions and emotions. This is much more like the way people experience their world, and therefore tends to draw the reader into the character’s reality.

By examining closer, we can see how this works.

Both paragraphs present a scene that has something to do with air flight. What’s the difference?

  1. In the first, notice the attention to factual background information: O’Hare’s Terminal B, first week on the job; the young man and the old woman are specifically described. In the second, notice that the information is more vague: a London club, a billionaire. We do not know exactly what these things are or what they look like. But then, people don’t view the world around them in terms of specific facts; instead they tend to incorporate what they are experiencing into a larger whole, as though each detail presented was part of a connected reality, and therefore doesn’t need the breakdown into explanation. In the weaker example, the things that should be specific are left vague, and the things that don’t truly matter are made specific. In the Cusk paragraph every sentence offers a window into a deeper meaning—that’s subtext.
  2. Interior versus exterior detail. The exterior detail must be connected to the protagonist’s interior experience, otherwise it becomes peripheral. It is not a “telling” detail. Look at the description at the end of the first paragraph: The terminal was empty except for an elderly woman and a young man. Although these things are visible to the protagonist, and register to his senses, none of them seems connected in any significant way to the protagonist’s problem or psychological state. They are essentially window dressing, placed by the author to establish the “scene,” as though mere detail could do this. In the second example, every external detail is connected to the protagonist’s inner reality. These are aspects that are important to the protagonist. For example, the billionaire promised “liberal credentials.” His open-necked shirt implies liberality, but the software he is developing serves corporations and seems designed to punish workers. He wants to start a literary magazine, which is important enough for her to stop before a trip to have lunch with him. The beauty of Cusk’s writing is that it works on a subconscious level, luring the reader in subtly. The information is just enough to get the reader to start thinking about more than what’s in the scene—this is the difference between telling a story and engaging the reader in a story.
  3. A glimpse into your character’s interior state reveals her interests, desires, and goals. In other words, it introduces the possibility of conflict, and conflict is the primary driver of good fiction. What does your character want, and what stands in her way of getting it? Yes, you can have external conflict such as a physical confrontation, but even the external conflict implies an internal state. We are not simply physical objects reacting to external stimuli.
  4. This depth of writing is not something that comes easily for most writers. It requires a deep understanding of character, to the point at which exterior observations and interior reactions become one. It also requires that the writer have confidence in presenting those connections as they are to the reader, without the boring, factual explanation that bogs down so many submissions. Part of the problem is that from our first conscious stirrings as children, and all through our educational experience, we are expected to explain ourselves to others. We are expected to provide simple answers. The world, we are taught, is not interested in our deeper emotions. The world is essentially a court of law that judges us based on what we did, not why we did it. As writers we have to overcome that. We have to learn to present not the facts of a protagonist’s existence, but the experience of what it is like to be that person. And that can only be done by connecting that exterior experience to interior desires and motivations. In simpler terms, it means that when we write the details of a scene or story, we need to ask why including those details matter.

– JP