By Kylie Kinley
I hated reading my creative work out loud until I came to graduate school. I always found mistakes and spent the entire time cringing. In addition, I talked too fast because I wanted it to be over, and I usually left a reading highly unsatisfied with the quality of my piece both in written and spoken form.
Then I learned about voice. Characters’ voices need to sound authentic to the ear as well as to the eye. Pacing is also an essential element to good writing; with good pacing, a story can sweep a reader away. Just a few weeks into my graduate career, I learned that the most effective way to perfect a voice and test the pacing of a piece is to read your work out loud. So I did. I read aloud to my mirror. I read aloud at my desk. I read to my roommate’s cat. I read my short fiction, my lyric essays, and my nonfiction. I wrote a novel for my thesis, and I read all 96,589 words out loud. I can speak about 235 words per minute, which means I spent 411 minutes, or 6.8 hours reading my book out loud from beginning to end. But I read my novel out loud at least three times, which is about 21 hours. That means I spent nearly an entire day during the last year listening to myself talk (the cat lasted about twenty minutes, in case you were wondering).
All of this talking and writing culminated at the Farewell Reading last Monday, which featured graduate-student creative writers who are finishing their master’s degrees at K-State. I practiced for three hours, marking up my manuscript with notes where I should take a breath, slow down, or raise the volume of my voice. I worked that hard because I now believe in the incredible effectiveness of reading work out loud and because of a memory I have from my first week of graduate school. During the annual Welcome Back Reading, I listened as my future professors read aloud from their work. I don’t remember any other specific events of that week, but I do remember how grateful I was for that hour. I didn’t have to think about critical imperatives, lesson planning, or abstracts (all three new things to me then). I experienced the luxury of hearing stories. I was struck then of the enduring power of a story. People love hearing stories. It is hardwired into us, probably ever since one caveman left his sleeping furs, crawled to the fire, and said to his caveman friend, “You will not believe what happened last night during the mammoth hunt.” People love stories over mimosas, pints, and pinot grigio. They love hearing and telling stories while crouched around a campfire, stuffed into a car with AC/DC as accompaniment, or leaning over a cubicle. You don’t remember the blackness of your marshmallow, the sweatiness of the car seat, or the upholstery of your cubicle chair, but you do remember the stories. My professors gave me the gift of that welcome reading, plus countless hours of criticism and encouragement. I practiced so hard for the Farewell Reading because I wanted to give them a good story.
I hope I did. Because halfway through my reading, when I looked up from my manuscript, I didn’t just see my professors. I saw my fellow graduate students, neighbors, and friends. When I participated in a department reading during my senior year as an undergraduate, I remember looking up and seeing two professors I knew. I knew none of the other students. At Kansas State, I told a story to my community. And then we all went to Aggieville and told more stories.
I have to admit that the afternoon was bittersweet, as it included its fair share of “farewells,” but I can’t get too sad. I am sure our stories will intertwine again.
Kylie Kinley is from Blue Hill, Nebraska, and a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She enjoys reading, writing, running, and making obscure agricultural references. Her future plans include finding a teaching job and raising a puppy.
By Mercedes Santiago
The worst part of speaking in front of people is the moment right before I get up to do it, when my brain weighs its options: You still have the chance to run, Mercedes.
It was no different last Friday when I read for Professor Katy Karlin’s English 461 class in Fiction Idol — an “American Idol”-style competition with 15 undergraduate competitors and a panel of graduate-student judges. As I walked up to the podium, after hearing nine other students read their stories, I could feel my pulse in my hands and the beginnings of a tremor in my knee. I wondered if anyone would be able to hear me over my shaking voice. But as soon as I got to the front of the room, only one course of action remained. I was satisfied with my story, confident in the words I had written. I just had to say them out loud. So I read my story, and I didn’t pass out or sneeze or do anything too embarrassing other than trip over a couple of words.
The best part of speaking in front of people is the moment right after I have finished, when I feel relief and a deep sense of satisfaction in having successfully faced one of my biggest fears. That’s why I volunteer for these types of events. I’m not a fan of public speaking, and I doubt I ever will be, but I am a fan of pushing beyond my comfort zone. The reward comes in triumphing over my own fears and limitations — and in knowing that I am strong enough to do so.
Perhaps even more rewarding, though, was hearing the other students read. Some selections were funny, some were sad, and some were downright disturbing. I enjoyed being in the audience, supporting my peers, who were putting themselves in the same vulnerable position that I was about to. Fiction Idol was a learning experience, just as much as a sharing one, and I could see the differences between some of the readers’ presentations. The winner, Lauren Komer, read her story beautifully, and I was endlessly impressed by the confidence she spoke with.
Despite my trembling knees, I’m glad I stood at the front of the room and read my story. I’m glad I have another item to add to the list of fears I’ve faced. And I’m glad I had the chance to support other students doing the same.
Mercedes Santiago is a Manhattan native and a second-year undergraduate studying English and biology.
By Ora McIntosh
I do some of my best thinking at work. Then again, staring at soap suds and dirty dishes for eight hours will do that to a person. The task is always the same: rinse, scrub (repeated as many times as necessary to make the dishes shine), and run through the washer. After three years, the process has become so engraved in my mind that I can safely say I’ve made somewhat of an art out of it. Not only that, but the job has become so mundane that I have to find ways to entertain myself, and I do so by brainstorming about writing.
I think about ideas for short stories and novels. I think about words or phrases I’ve heard that sound cool and that I want to use in my own writing. I make up paragraphs on the spot and recite them to myself over and over again so I won’t forget them before I can get a chance to write them down. These thoughts become my weekend mantra, projecting themselves onto pots and pans until each swipe of the scouring pad across the not-so-stainless steel cooking vessels reflects every word and every sentence flowing through my brain.
Currently, as it’s the week before finals, the process of revision has been the subject of my weekend mantra. In the Introduction to Fiction Writing class I’m enrolled in this semester, we discussed eight steps to consider when revising our short stories. Out of the eight steps, two of them intimidate me the most: developing character and the rewrite.
It’s tough to admit it, even to myself, but through the process of thinking about my characters and trying to make them seem more realistic, I’ve come to realize that I’m the type of writer who tends to let character just happen. Especially in first drafts, I don’t think as critically about my characters as I should, and although they come out seemingly believable in the beginning drafts, I know there is always room for improvement. The same can be said about the rewriting process, I can always do better. Of course, like many writers I both fear and respect the blank page, and sometimes I let the fear get the best of me and I trick myself into thinking that I’m betraying the first draft and all the hard work that went into it when, really, opening a fresh document is an act of loyalty. Still, it’s a bit difficult to shake off doubt, but I’ve set my mind to doing just that.
This time around, in order to wage war on the fear of the blank page and the difficulty I have with developing character, I’ve decided to go at them like I would a dirty dish. I’ll rinse myself of any negativity and put some muscle behind the pencil and scrub my document until it shines. Allowing myself enough time to repeat the process a few times won’t hurt either.
Ora McIntosh was born in Leesville, Louisiana, but has lived in the Junction City area for most of her life. She is a junior English major with an emphasis in creative writing, and she works at Valley View Nursing Center in Junction City as a part-time dishwasher and dietary aide.
By Elizabeth Kraushar
Humans are nosy creatures. It’s in our nature. We wish we could open a window into each other’s brains and sift through the contents at leisure. It might explain our love of literature, which is essentially the height of nosiness—the desire to study characters and perhaps find an echo of ourselves within them. Linked short story collections are a fun way of satisfying this voyeuristic tendency without resorting to reality TV or something else that might endanger brain function. Perhaps I’m slow on the uptake, given that they’ve been around for years (Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio in 1919), but I didn’t encounter my first linked collection until last semester with Jerry Gabriel’s Drowned Boy. This spring I’m playing catch-up by reading a series of linked collections as part of my honors project. One might be tempted to call them novels, since they often feature the same characters popping in and out of each other’s stories, but their lack of linear storytelling and somewhat fragmented nature make them a different and at times more powerful experience for the reader.
Plot, setting, and character must be considered in new ways. Since these collections can be structured much more freely than a novel—with one story set in the character’s childhood and the next rocketing fifty years into the future, for example—one aspect to keep in mind is the author’s intentions. The author chose to order the stories this way for a reason, and as you read you’ll understand how one story adds complexity to another. With linked collections we are able to leapfrog from character to character until each is given a distinct voice and place in the community. The shadowy figure of Denny in Men Giving Money, Women Yelling by Alice Mattison weaves in and out of the characters’ lives: sometimes he’s a romantic attachment, other times an ominous addict brandishing a gun. In this case, each story sheds light on the troubled yet oddly likable Denny while simultaneously shrouding him in further mystery.
In the first story of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge the title character comes off as, well, kind of a miserable old shrew. Yet Strout builds on Olive in later stories, subtly manipulating the reader into forming a different opinion with each new tale. Watching Olive struggle with her egotistical daughter-in-law or attempt to reason with a downtrodden anorexic all serve to strengthen the bond between character and reader, until we understand the compassion beneath Olive’s gruff exterior. At one point I actually opened my mouth to retort when another inhabitant of the town criticized Olive, and it was at that moment that I understood why Strout had won the Pulitzer Prize for her book.
Interestingly, publishers prefer linked collections over unconnected short story collections at the moment. The latter is very hard to sell nowadays, but a novel—or say, a series of stories that functions something like a novel—is considered more marketable. So if you wanted a practical reason to read a couple of linked collections and maybe try writing one yourself, there it is. In addition to those above, my reading list included Short People by Joshua Furst, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and I’ve enjoyed them all.
Interlinked collections such as Strout’s and Mattison’s remind the reader that no person is alone: We live in a community populated with a rich and diverse set of characters, each of whom deserves a story.
Elizabeth Kraushar is a senior English major. She will enter the M.A. program at Kansas State in the fall.
By Virginia Vincent
WARNING! If you have not read The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure abridged by William Goldman (yes, it was a book before it was a movie), and you suddenly have the desire to read it, then do not read this blog! I repeat: DO NOT READ THIS BLOG! This blog contains probably the most significant spoiler of the entire book. If you don’t mind some spoilers, then please, by all means, keep reading.
The Princess Bride was first published in 1973, though William Goldman explains in the introduction that the book is actually a lot older than that. He says that the book is an abridgement of a novel written by S. Morgenstern that was probably 500+ pages long and had a lot of unnecessary and boring sections. However, and this is the spoiler, The Princess Bride was written by Goldman, not abridged. I’m sorry to say this, but there is no S. Morgenstern and there is no 500+ page book by the guy. Goldman completely made that up. Even the “introduction” is fiction: Goldman describes how his father read Morgenstern’s book to him when he was sick, how the book turned his obsession away from sports and to literature, and how he discovered that the book was a lot longer than he remembered when he tried to give it to his son. Goldman then decided to create this “abridgement” with only the good parts that he remembered his father reading to him. All of that is a lie. Well, maybe lie is too strong. After all, isn’t that what fiction basically is: a lie? But Goldman does trick readers. He throws in just enough factual biographical information in the “introduction,” such as his work with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Stepford Wives, to fool some readers into thinking that he is telling the truth. However, if you do some research, you’ll find that Goldman’s wife wasn’t a psychologist, he has two daughters and no sons, and, oh, his father wasn’t an immigrant from Florin mostly because Florin doesn’t exist. If this is all a surprise to you, don’t worry — I admit I fell for Goldman’s trick too. As I started reading the book, I thought, This is kinda interesting. I’ve never read a novel that was an abridgement before. Wow, did I feel like an idiot when I discovered the truth.
So why did Goldman pass his novel off as an abridgement? In Richard Anderson’s biography, titled William Goldman, Goldman says the following about his “abridgement”:
“I didn’t start with that idea. The first thing I wrote was the section that is now in the book called ‘Chapter One, The Bride,’ which is fifteen or twenty pages long, and the second thing I wrote was the chapter ‘The Groom,’ which is three or four pages long, and then I was dry. I had all these things, and I was desperate to get them out because I didn’t want to write all the crap that I didn’t know how to do.
“I had a fencing scene, and a fighting scene, and a scene with a giant snake, and a scene with a monstrous this and a monstrous that, and I didn’t know how to connect them. Then, suddenly, I got the idea of what if it’s an abridgement?
“The frame of the book was not meant to be a literary trick. The opening chapter about a Goldman, who is doing work in Los Angeles on The Stepford Wives, is to give a reality to Morgenstern, to the book that I’m abridging. Once I got the idea that it was all an abridgement, and I could legitimately go from good part to good part, it opened up on me like nothing I’ve ever done has opened up on me. I was writing!”
It makes sense: Don’t know how to get to the next scene? Just write some side commentary that explains how the “real” author of the book spent 30 pages relaying the packing and unpacking of some hats and move to the next scene. I have to admit, that would be a helpful trick to use in some of my writing occasionally (or maybe often).
However, the more I think about it, the more I realize I do use that trick all the time. Whether I’m working on a short story or my novel for English 771 (K-State’s novel-writing workshop), I always get an idea for a scene in my head that I want to write, but I’m not sure how to connect it to where I currently am in the story. So what do I do? I skip to that scene.
You are doing an abridgement all the time when you work on a novel. You are going along with the storyline and suddenly you realize that the next scene you want to write isn’t in line with where you are in the story. That scene maybe takes place two weeks away from the moment you’re currently in. So as a writer you have to ask, Does anything really important happen in those two weeks? If the answer is no, then you add a break to the story and skip ahead to the scene two weeks later. Goldman didn’t want to write the crap that happened between his scenes: the packing and unpacking of hats, Buttercup’s princess lessons, etc. Well, in truth, he didn’t have to because novelists never do.
While I enjoyed Goldman’s asides throughout The Princess Bride, I think he had the wrong reasoning behind his “abridgement.” He had all of the scenes he needed for the story: the “good parts” version. If you take out all of Goldman’s commentary, there will still be a story. Goldman’s commentary is really just some added fluff. It’s hilarious fluff — don’t get me wrong — and the book would not be the same without the commentary, but it’s not needed to tell the story that Goldman wanted to tell.
I often write scenes I will delete later because I realize they’re just extra fluff, not really important for the storyline. They might fit in with the life of my characters. They might even contain an interesting revelation for a character. However, if a scene doesn’t do anything for the overall plot, it isn’t needed. The scene and subsequent scenes like it would just slow down a book. Readers would put it down because they got tired of waiting for the interesting stuff to happen.
Maybe that was what Goldman was commenting on with his commentary. Goldman was highlighting how authors have to abridge themselves in order to keep readers interested. The author might find it fun to write a whole chapter consisting of nothing but packing and unpacking hats, but the reader probably won’t.
Goldman wasn’t just making it easier for himself to write The Princess Bride, he was revealing how authors write novels. In our minds, a novel might be a thousand pages long, but we only show the “good parts” version to readers: the 300-page book that is bound neatly within paper.
Virginia Vincent is a first-year M.A. student in the creative writing track at Kansas State University.