A few weeks ago, I was furious at someone on a level normally reserved for politics. For about three days I didn’t know how to defuse my anger; I just complained and ranted to any poor person who came within ear shot. It was eating at me, how much anger I had stored up. Despite being decidedly non-violent, I wanted to punch something, possibly the person who had set me off.
So on the evening of the third day, I sat down and wrote a flash fiction piece about punching someone in the face. It was fun and I actually felt a little bit better—particularly after I explored, in an overly descriptive paragraph, how it would feel to punch someone in the face.
It wasn’t enough, however. The anger was still there (since violence is never the answer). I felt obligated to bring this person’s flaws to light in the most unflattering way possible. The world must know every little grating inch of this person, even if they didn’t who the person was. Someone else needed to be as annoyed as I was. The problem was, angry as I felt, it seemed churlish and mean-spirited to simply call this person a spade by name in print. It might feel good for a hot minute, but it wouldn’t be satisfying in the long run.
Photo from Apartment Therapy
During the first creative writing class I ever taught, a student approached me with a particular challenge. She had a wonderful premise for a novel that revolved around a pack of women who worked in a 1970s factory in the Midwest. But even with a strong idea, she was still having trouble getting the novel off the ground. “The problem is,” she said, “that none of my characters want to do anything.” They all looked the same, acted the same, and felt the same. In essence, her characters were a chain of paper dolls. Sound familiar?
As a class, we discussed her options. The first was to introduce some kind of event that would force her otherwise reluctant characters to react. The second choice (which was not mutually exclusive from the first) was to differentiate her characters. The act of character differentiation is two-fold. Characters must be distinct not only from each other, but from you—the author—as well. If you think of your characters as puppets, you’ll sentence them to behaving only as you would.
So how does a character gain her independence? Character templates are a good place to start, but the true story begins when these people have to act and interact. Character breeds plot, not the other way around. The better we are at character differentiation, the better we’ll be at writing the best plot. Let’s consider a few examples.
It’s been a long, tortuous path from the inception of the Fantasy Blog competition to the finals, full of upsets and surprises—but here we are, left with two teams standing after the semifinals three weeks ago which brought surprises of its own.
After a cross-country move, the commissioner was rendered connectionless in his new apartment in the Great American Midwest. As if to mock his Net-less existence, Facebook decided to cripple our voting system with no warning. Without even a hanging chad to count, we were forced to rely on an arcane calculation that involved mixing salt crystals taken from the white T-shirt Kerouac wore when writing The Scroll and mixing them with the dregs of a dusty bottle of ron añejo found in a closet at the Hemingway House, creating an obscene, literary Papa Doble daiquiri. The resulting concoction sent the commissioner into a disturbing sleep during which he learned, in a dream, that the winner was none other than What the Chuckin’ Buk?!Continue Reading
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.
It’s almost September, which means that the school year is about to begin. We expect that many of you who teach writing or creative writing are finishing up your syllabi and lesson plans (we sure are!). Here are some blog posts and articles on teaching to help you gear up for classes.
Or, if summer’s end puts you in that back-to-school mood, but you aren’t heading back to class, whip your writing into shape with these resources.
On Teaching from Ploughshares
The folks over at Barrelhouse are keeping busy. There’s the journal, of course, but now they’re also in the book business, the podcast business, and the literary event business. Just over a month away from the annual Conversations and Connections conference in Philadelphia—which will feature a keynote address from fiction writer J. Robert Lennon—I talked to Barrelhouse fiction editor Mike Ingram and nonfiction editor Tom McAllister (who also co-host the popular Book Fight podcast) about the conference and other happenings in the Barrelhouse universe.Continue Reading
We’re excited to announce the publication of a new Ploughshares Solo: “The Genie at Low Tide” by Paul Byall. The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish long essays and stories in a digital-first format. Recent Ploughshares Solos include “A Warm Breath” by Scott Nadelson and “Pleased to Be Otherwise” by Gina Ochsner. Visit our website to see all the Ploughshares Solos.
Josh Cooper won Rookie of the Year in 1972 and was out of the majors by 1973, his pitching career ended by a sharp line drive up the middle. After moving back to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, he has been pleasantly wasting his life for over three decades when a young woman shows up, claiming to be his daughter from one of many one-night stands.
Now, after years of chasing women, casual drinking, and recreational fishing, Cooper is forced to share his life with a strange young woman who keeps badgering him to eat healthier and clean up after himself, and seems to be harboring secrets of her own. “The Genie at Low Tide” is a story of the mysterious, magical encounters that force us to re-examine our lives, even when we seem to have come to the end of the line.
Available on Kindle and Nook for $0.99. Continue Reading
I didn’t teach this summer so I was able to catch up on my cultural literacy—reading books and also binge-watching TV. Netflix is my dealer of choice, delivering whole seasons of House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Arrested Development. The feeling I get when I’m on these jags is a cross between eating too much candy and being immersed in a good beach read: my eyes hurt, but I am spellbound. When the next episode appears right there on my screen, I can’t fight the urge to find out what will happen next.
This bingeing has also given me the chance to notice how the stories unspool over time (a short time, in my case); how the plot mechanisms fit together; and how the characters evolve over the course of the story. Something about being immersed in a world for a brief, intense period of time that forced me to see what the authors—in this case writers, directors, producers, and actors—were up to and how they went about accomplishing it.
Most of all I’ve been struck by the way these shows develop characters. It’s the way I invest in stories too. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story (and often abandon it.) So instead of an essay on what I learned from my summer reading, here’s one on what I learned about character development from my summer watching.
The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and over the coming months I will also invite other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Gretchen Henderson.
—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief
We met Sierra as a seven-week-old puppy, palm-sized and all paws. The rescue organization said she was a Bernese Mountain mix. Her mother and five siblings had been found on the streets of Los Angeles. Each puppy was about 10 pounds, projected to grow into 100-pounds, piled in a sidewalk playpen, sleeping in the sun. She was the only one awake, looking out the bars, wide-eyed and curious.
We had not planned to get a dog that day. We were just beginning to explore local rescues, waiting as we had for years to be more settled to responsibly care for a dog. There always was a rational reason to postpone: space, time, money, our lifestyle as academic gypsies. We had a tiny apartment with no yard. But watching her peer out of the pen in wonder, our reaction was immediate. We stopped questioning the dog, instead questioning anything in our life that would prevent us from taking her home.
The Books We Teach series will feature primary, secondary, and post-secondary educators and their thoughts about literature in the face of an evolving classroom. Posts will highlight literary innovations in teaching, contemporary literature’s place in pedagogy, and the books that writers teach. In the spirit of educational dynamism, we encourage readers to contribute their thoughts in the comments section.
Matthew Salesses is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013), The Last Repatriate, and two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. His essays and fiction have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, Hyphen, American Short Fiction, Guernica, NPR, The New York Times Motherlode blog, and elsewhere. He writes a column for The Good Men Project and serves as the Project’s Fiction Editor. While completing his MFA at Emerson, he was a Presidential Fellow and editor of Redivider. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Houston.
Here, Matthew and I discuss his recent teaching experiences at Grub Street, an independent center for creative writing in Boston, Massachusetts.Continue Reading