In my fiction class, we started talking about Sean Doolittle's novel Rain Dogs in preparation for their final craft paper due at the end of the semester. I structure this class around short stories at the beginning of the semester and a novel in the last part, because while they're writing short stories for me, most of the time, they'll pick up a novel for fun. So, it's important for us as writers to pick apart how a novel is put together. The crime lit aspect of it is a bit of an accident. This is the third time I've taught this class--the first time, when I chose Krueger's Iron Lake, its mystery-nature was an accident. I chose it because I wanted to teach it. The second time, with O'Connor's Star of the Sea, I was coordinating with a friend and I picked the book because she'd already chosen it and submitted her book order. That it was a murder mystery was an accident. This time, I figured the universe was trying to tell me something, so hence, Doolittle's Rain Dogs, set in the Nebraska Sandhills. Crime happens everywhere--and other than crime, stuff happens everywhere--and that's all fair game for writers.
We talked about the difference between novels and short stories (beyond the obvious length) and the discussion was terrific. We talked about the visual rhetoric of the cover (dark colors and block font)--and since I was passing around a few Irish noir books (my proposal on the craft of the urban in contemporary Irish noir was accepted this weekend for the annual International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures conference), the similarities between Declan Hughes' The Color of Blood and Doolittle's were striking. We talked about long strands of narrative, short strands of narrative. We talked about the imbalances that keep us reading.
Then we hopped into groups and started talking craft:
- What is the voice here? How would you characterize the tone? On the sentence level, what do the sentences look like? Some of my students commented on how the tone and pacing seemed lethargic, so we talked about how Doolittle did that--and why he did it. We talked about Tom's drinking and the (below) very distant POV.
- How are the characters introduced, on a craft level? (Refer to notes on characterization.) How do we come to know what we know about these characters? What is the POV? How does the psychic distance of the lens affect the telling?
- How is the place—Valentine, Nebraska—created as a character in these beginning chapters? How are the characters crafted in relation to it? How is it already acting as much on the characters as they are acting on it? We talked about the beginning, where every time Tom tries to speak, eighteen wheelers and other traffic on the road outside drowns out what he would say. So, on a very active level, the town doesn't want to hear what he has to say.
- Contrast the direct dialogue, the indirect dialogue, and the use of silence and gestures. How does Doolittle craft these? What flavor does this give the narrative? Why did Doolittle make the choices he did? We talked about the lack of speech tags and the use of gestures, how they create this feeling of empty dialogue.
I can't wait to get further into this book!
In 45 minutes, I'll head down to my 250 class and we'll start our nonfiction unit--the first time I've gotten to teach nonfiction in a creative writing class since my MFA. To say that I'm excited is not even in the ballpark. Right now, I've got thirty nonfiction books on my officemate's desk, each with certain parts marked with orange Post-It's. Here's what the lesson plan will look like:
- Pass out books, ask students to read the marked passages. Allow 10-15 minutes.
- If they don’t finish, that’s okay.
- Talk about the versatility of the genre. Can do anything from memoir to personal essay to history to science to travel to nature writing. There’s nothing you can’t do in nonfiction—except lie.
- “How many of you were reading something kinda cool?”
- What about it was cool? Subject matter? Writing style? Approach to the subject?
- Small subjects (Dirt); short-shorts
- Subject matter is often the first thing that attracts us, but it won’t hold us without the craft.
- “So how many of you were reading something that you could detect craft?—anything from writing style and language to structure to a unique perspective on the topic?
- Essential to nonfiction—truth, not fact. Contract with reader. Use of memory.
- Essential: warrant. Not only is it essential to know why you’re writing something (just because something happened to you isn’t a good enough reason), but it’s also essential to establish, somehow, why the reader should care.
- How many of you can discern the writer’s warrant?
- Is it obvious (can you underline it) or is it intuitive?
- What about why the reader should care? Why should the reader care?
- How many of you were reading something that you really want to finish?
- Prompt: Best Opening Line Ever: Bill Bryson, “I come from Des Moines. Someone had to.” Start there—write that piece. You may think your hometown is borning, but that doesn’t mean that someone else won’t be fascinated.
- Essential: Read everything. Read the work you like—read it as a writer, not just as a reader. But be careful. If you read too much of the same writer, you’ll start to sound like that writer, rather than developing your own style. (The same is true of your teachers—don’t just take one teacher. Don’t do more than one degree in one place. Ie, if you get your bachelor’s somewhere, don’t get your masters there. Same for a masters/PhD.)
- As you read, learn which writers will teach you—which ones will teach you about language, the ones that will teach you about narrative, about structure. You’ll not find one writer who will do all of that.
And then we will do this writing exercise from Mimi Schwartz: ¨
- What is your name? Write only the verifiable facts of your name: what it means, how it’s spelled, what your nickname is, who else has your name. What is the image presented by your name (sexy, no-nonsense, boring, etc.)? Leave your POV and what you think about your name out.
- Now write about your name from the inside out. Make it as subjective as possible. How do you feel about your name? Do you like it? Is who you are with your full name different than you with your nickname?
- What does your name have to do with your identity?
And watch this video of the awesome Dinty Moore, because it follows the writing exercise: