Some organizational matters

September 7, 2017

The Art of Narrative class has been blessed with 32  students, too many for a graduate writing course. The good news is that we have found an excellent writer and teacher who is working on his doctorate at the University of Houston program in creative writing, Kaj Tanaka.

We will divide the class , each of us taking 16 students. Mr. Tanaka, will teach his section in room MLK 102.

A word about his background. Mr. Tanaka holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas, a very good writing program, and he has published many short stories and edited nonfiction as well.  The UH Creative Writing program is one of the best in the coutntry. He is working on a novel. He has taught lots of writing classes. Here is his resume. Kaj Tanaka CV[1]

We will split the class tonight as best we can based on your interests. He will take the fiction writers and I will take the nonfiction and we will see how that works out.

I urge you to think of your writing project as something that will point towards your master’s project. Consider it a rehearsal for what you are aiming to produce.

Mr. Tanaka’s section will meet at 6 because he must come from a class at UH. I may move my section so we can stay in sync. We’re experimenting with how to teach this class. For the time being we will use the instructional materials from this blog and some of the readings.

Here is a link to the instructional materials: Instructional Materials for JOUR 505



Start as late as possible: the opening of Frankenstein

August 30, 2017

One of the sayings about telling stories is “Start as late as possible.” This excerpt with the opening of Frankenstein exemplifies the admonition. It is reprinted from The Writer’s Almanac, an email newsletter that provides a poem and in several morsels of literary history and biography. It is is well worth subscribing to.

It’s the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (books by this author), born Mary Godwin in London, England (1797). She is famous as the author of Frankenstein (1818), which is considered the first science fiction novel ever written.

It begins: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. … It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Handling time elements

June 22, 2017

Here is a blog entry from the past about thinking of the story in chapters. And it also includes a markup of The War of Words, which points out the time elements in narrative writing. I have noticed that many beginning writers don’t organize the time elements. Think about time in the story. In the markup you will see I have pointed out the time elements, which are usually included at the beginning of a paragraph.

I’m attaching my markup of the “War of Words.”


Note that I’ve penciled in some flags to indicate the time elements. Here’s why I’m so insistent that you notice these time flags. If you don’t know you need them to write the story, you will fail to gather them in the reporting stage. It’s very important to keep track of time in a long reported piece. And even in a short one, as you saw when Joyce Carol Oates wrote about Muhammad Ali’s boxing career.

The point is, you need to know how stories are written and constructed so you can gather the materials, ask the questions that enable you to write a good story. You want to get the materials assembled before you write. So you research the story with an eye to satisfying two important necessities: the time element (and then what happened, and then what happened) and the theme (why are you telling me about this).

As for analyzing the story in terms of the Six-Box model, there’s no perfect answer. The important thing is to see how the story evolves section by section. In the New Yorker, these sections are indicated by spaces and big capital letters. These sections are like chapters of a book, and could  be given titles. (The Titanic story is broken up with sub-heads in this way.) It’s a good thing to think of your story as having chapters, because if you rough out the titles of the sections, that helps you do the reporting.

In my story about the care of the mentally disabled, I already have certain big themes that I will develop in the reporting stage. 1) The horrors of big institutions are exposed in a 1966 book and a 1972 television story. 2) In reaction parents of intellectually disabled children start building their own institutions. 3) In 1999 the Supreme Court issues the Olmsted decision that creates the long waiting lists for what are called Home and Community Based Services. 4) Parents are increasingly concerned that bureaucrats are making arbitrary decisions about how government benefits are spent, and are challenging the policies.

Now I have four chapters, each based on action and reaction, cause and effect. I have a reporting plan and that will be foundation of the story plan. You can’t write what you don’t report.

The form of the story should start when you do the reporting. You should constantly be asking “What’s the story about?” But you should also be thinking about the order of the narrative. Not just how it begins, but how it ends.

In the case of the “War of Words,” the ending is the exile of the central character. The writer wanted to ask how this brave poet and journalist ended up in Norway. Many writers start out with their ending, their arrival point, clearly in mind. Sometimes, but not always. I once wrote a story that started with the funeral of my central character, then went back in time and took the story forward until I arrived back at the funeral. The end circles back to the beginning. Not an unusual tactic.  Here’s the story:  The Transformation of Robert Campbell.




Set the story in time and place

June 20, 2017

Stories are about particular people in a particular place at a certain time. This seems obvious but it is sometimes hard for beginning writers to wrap their minds around this. Think about movies and stories and how the place is so important. A movie has to be shot somewhere, so it’s a little easier to establish the place. The story has to happen somewhere. And that somewhere affects the story.

“Moonlight” happens in a drug-infested neighborhood in Miami. One of the most important scenes happens when the boy is taught to swim in the ocean. “Hell or High Water” happens in small towns in  West Texas. The bank robbers use a front-end loader to bury their getaway car in the sandy soil of their mother’s ranch.

I’m getting A’Kayla to write about a special teacher at her undergraduate college. I neglected to tell her part of the story is to describe the college. We must see the characters in their surroundings. Sometimes beginning writers get so focused on the characters that they neglect how the setting, the place, the environment is essential to making the story seem real.

A place can have the status of a character in a story. It creates conditions that the characters react to. Places have history. How did the history of a place create those conditions?

And time is important. When the did the story happen? How old are the characters?

Here is a passage from the first long paragraph of The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin:

…I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid–afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without. What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen; nothing had changed. But now, without any warning, the whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace. It had not before occurred to me that I could become one of them, but now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances. Many of my comrades were clearly headed for the Avenue, and my father said that I was headed that way, too. My friends began to drink and smoke and embarked–at first avid, then groaning–on their sexual careers.

From the beginning, Baldwin wants you to know exactly where the story–note the word Avenue–takes place and he wants to make the place as alive as he, the narrator, looking back, is alive. Look for passages in other stories that establish place. Identify a passage and send it to me. Place creates character.

What is the role of place in your story?

Guide to making a documentary film

June 18, 2017

Alandrea added this comment but I’m afraid you might not have seen it. It’s a two page summary on how to write a documentary film proposal. It’s in the pages section on the right. I found it on the Internet and it made sense.

Alandrea makes a good point, which is follow the directions. Don’t make up your own way to write a proposal. Take the advice of experts. The point is to imitate professionals. Is this destructive of creative vision? Originality? Personal vision?

I don’t think so. First master the rules. Then as you grow professionally, you will learn how to bend and use the rules in a more creative way.

Alandrea Pfeifer Says:

If anyone is thinking about doing an interview for this paper, I found that maybe making a documentary for your CM699 project may be the easiest route because you will already have all the vital information for your proposal (which Dr Berryhill included a great documentary proposal example on the main page) . Just a thought!

Step up and write

June 13, 2017

I’ve had only a couple of comments and one proposal. You’ve got to write. Write comments. Write email. You should be asking me questions and making comments on the blog. Do something every day.

Write write write and read read read

June 12, 2017

Dear Writers:

Tale a moment to read the comments section about the story. You have to click on the link.

Do you have a good place in which to work, and a time allotted? I mean a table or a desk where you are alone and quiet. Where you feel good when you sit there. Allot some time to do this.

I recommend you mark up or highlight the handouts. Solidify the points in your mind by writing them down on a card or paper. See how they apply to your story idea.

Think about your character. What do you know about him or her? Use some of those questions for the profile in Blundell’s handout, and check out the Aristotelian notes on character, such as nutrition and locomotion.  Both played a major role in the Edward Jones story. The lines on Kool-aid and beer are hilarious. And his car. All those things that give us a sense of a character’s mind and values. As Syd Field writes: KNOW YOUR CHARACTER.

This is what I mean by planning a story.

And more advice. Don’t put this off. Don’t wait until the last minute. Work on this every day. A half hour or an hour.

Akayla’s Comment on the story

June 9, 2017

You have to click on the comment link to read Kayla’s insight into Jones’s story. Very insightful  about the three-act structure.

But I believe the murderer is identified. You have to read closely at the end. He finds bloody marks on the fire escape banister that leads to the apartment above.  And who lives in the apartment above? Tell me what you think. Use the comments feature.

Read this story and comment

June 7, 2017

I’m linking to the story “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” by Edward P. Jones, and also providing a .pdf copy. Read it once just to enjoy. Then go back and look for the characteristics of writing described in the handouts. For example, does the story have the three act structure? Does it embody any of the Aristotelian elements in the handout of character. What is the narrator’s need and how it that revealed? Notice the dialogue. How does Jones handle that? There is a mystery at the heart of the story, but there is also what we often call the story within the story. I’m looking forward to your comments. Get me something by the end of the week. You could add the comments to blog.

Remember, reading is essential to improving your writing.

All Aunt Hagar_s Children – The New Yorker


On starting out as a writer

June 7, 2017

Here is a story by Edward P.  Jones, a wonderful writer, explaining in the New Yorker how he became a writer. A lovely little story. I’m printing it here in full. Notice the story starts with time and place.  I am going to post the link to a long story by Jones which I want you all to read. It’s kind of a detective story, but it’s not really that.


In my first months as a college freshman, I cared more than anything about a young woman with whom I’d gone to high school—Sandra Walker, a thin, brown-skinned woman who might not have been pretty enough for the rest of the universe but was more than pretty enough for me. She was at college in Atlanta and I was in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had never kissed her, for she was true to someone else. I don’t think I’d even so much as touched the back of her hand, but I cared for her, and the only way I knew how to express what I felt at that point in my life was to write letters, and write letters I did. Three and four and five a week I wrote. All of them were more than five pages long and many went to fifteen pages—so thick once they had been folded that I had to reinforce the envelopes with tape. I had always written legibly, but the fear was so great that Sandra Walker might not be able to decipher even one syllable I had written that I began printing everything, and to this day the only cursive writing I do is my signature.

Things like that get in the blood, and they become who you are. I never received a strongly positive response from Sandra, but the crumbs, the letters sharing with me only the minutiae of her life, were enough to keep me writing—September and October and November. There wasn’t much beyond the crumbs. Imagining as best I could what a young woman at the front door of the rest of her life might want to hear from a young man, I put all the hope I had into each letter, using the limited language of an eighteen-year-old who knew books of mathematics but not much else. It is amazing the little shacks of life we can build when it seems that so much is at stake. Before it was all over, the letters—from what I can remember, for I have not seen any of them since the day I sent them off—became grand and fanciful creations about some marvellous future that Sandra Walker and I could have. It was a world of fiction, of course, a place conjured up in my imagination, because, as my mother could have told Sandra, I could barely take care of myself and would not have known what to do with, first, a girlfriend, and then a wife and all the children we were supposed to have.

But I was alone in the wilderness in Worcester, away from Washington, D.C., my home, for the first time, and I needed some shack of life. I know now that had I been someone who knew only how to paint pictures, I would have done that. I would have made my case with painting after painting, wrapping them with care and sending them off to Atlanta. Or if I had known how to carve little figures in wood I would have carved Sandra and me and our happy future in oak or maple or whatever wood I could salvage in Worcester. Or I would have weighed poor Sandra down with volumes of poetry or tapes of songs with her name in every title.

I learned, once the world became larger than Sandra Walker and me and Worcester, Massachusetts, that we are born with few tools with which to build our little shacks of life, and we are born with even less knowledge of how to use those tools. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had it in me to write those letters, those stories, to Sandra. I was able to crawl into December, and I woke up one day and knew, without a letter from Sandra, without anyone telling me so, that wherever in the universe Sandra Walker would end up I would not be there with her. I made peace with that, and I think I had a sense that I wasn’t really eighteen anymore, but fast going on twenty. ♦