By Adele Annesi

Word for Words is by author Adele Annesi. For Adele's website, visit Adele Annesi.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Never the Same Place—Or Person—Twice"

Recently, I was listening to Saturday Cinema, with radio host Lynne Warfel. In advance of the Oscars, Warfel was featuring academy-award winning films and scores, including The Way We Were, a 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand as two very different people who share time together. Listening to the theme song and reflecting on the poignancy of the music and film, I was reminded of Marcel Proust’s 1900s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which literally means in search of times lost. All of us return to places we’ve been and people we’ve known, often in search of the past, and many of us write about characters who, in real time or via flashback, are returning for the same reason. How can writers make the most of a scene or story that features a return?

Most of us like returning to places we’ve enjoyed and people we’ve enjoyed being with. Sometimes we go back because we have to. Since the same is true of our characters, here are questions to consider when writing of a return:

  • What or who is the person returning to and why?
  • Are they looking forward to the reunion? Why or why not?
  • Once they arrive, what are their first impressions? What are these based on?
  • How will their impressions evolve as time goes by and reality sets in?
  • What about the place or person is different or the same and why?
  • What’s different about your character and why?
  • Do others in the story realize this? How and why?
  • What are the effects of these realizations on the characters and overall story?
  • How will the return change the character and others in the work?
  • What was the character hoping to find?
  • Did they find it? Why or why not?
  • What are the disappointments in the return?
  • What are the benefits and surprises?

If you’re having trouble envisioning the differences in the place or people between then and now, put the people in a scene together, either in an iconic setting or one that’s off the beaten path. Also give them time alone to realize what is different, and why and how this effects everyone’s lives.

To add spice, consider disruptors that would reveal who these people are today and how the place has changed. For example, if you visit Italy, you’re likely to encounter a transit strike—rail, taxi or both. What happens to your main character then? What do they reveal about themselves as they handle the unexpected?

Situations like this also reveal the character to the character. For example, your main character may take a schedule disruption in stride now, but when the person they’re waiting for is late to dinner, they may unravel, wondering why the person is late and what this says about their relationship. How does the character respond when they realize they’re not as cool under this sort of pressure as they once were?

On some level, we know we can’t go back and find the same person or place we left. Yet, returning yields discoveries about the place and the people, and when faced with the effects of time and change, our characters may respond in ways we don’t expect. Instead of censoring them, let the scene play out, and see where it takes you. Times and people past may be lost in one sense, but we can discover a trove of treasures by searching for them all the same.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Try Before You Trust: To All Gentlewomen and Other Maids in Love - Historical Fiction by Constance Briones

Try Before You Trust: To All Gentlewomen and Other Maids in Love (Historium Press, 2023), by Constance Briones, is an insightful work of historical fiction that captures the best of the genre. Here is an interview with the author on her writing journey with this novel.

What made you choose this particular topic?
I discovered the protagonist of my novel, Isabella Whitney, while researching my Master’s thesis on literacy and women in England during the sixteenth century. Whitney is credited as the first English woman believed to have written original secular poetry for publication in the mid-sixteenth century. I admired her gusty character. She dared to write poems exploring love relations between men and women at a time when religious translations were the only acceptable writing endeavor for women.

Whitney was in her late teens when her first volume of poetry concerning men-women relations was published. The Copy of a Letter (1567), with its adjoining poem, The Admonition of the Author to all young Gentlewomen and all other maids being in Love, were love poems written in the personae of a jilted lover. Whitney presented an unconventional woman’s perspective of how unfairly men treat women in love, which played a role in the debates on women’s nature in the sixteenth century. Her choice to defy the conventions of her day, both in her thinking and actions, impressed me. And I couldn’t help but think she would make a most engaging literary heroine. Another primary consideration for going the fiction route rather than writing a biography is the scant information about Whitney’s life, leading me to tell the story of her journey from maidservant to unemployed domestic to her early success as a poet through historical fiction.

What were your greatest writing challenges and why?
Getting as close as I could to historically authentic language and striking a balance between including too much history or too little history in the story.

How did you address these?
My story takes place in Elizabethan England, so I realized early on that I couldn’t write dialogue as if I were Shakespeare, fearing it would turn people off. So, to promote a better understanding of dialogue, I opted for authenticity, rather than absolute accuracy, to give the reader a taste of the historical language of the period. If I wasn’t sure about a word or a phrase, I used the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which has a word history section. I also read historical fiction by well-known authors such as Allison Weir and Philippa Gregory, who frequently write stories set in 16th-century England.

Since I taught history and am more comfortable with nonfiction writing, my biggest fear has been that my novel would begin to read more like a history book than a story. I followed the advice given to me: to use a combination of narrative exposition, dialogue, and internal thought to convey historical background. And to include it only when it felt pertinent to the story.

What did you enjoy most about writing the novel and why?
I enjoyed building scenes where the reader sees and hears what’s happening, like watching a movie. It was an engaging endeavor to consider the actions and dialogue of my characters in pivotal scenes, contemplating what I would have them do and say that would reveal their true character.

What other projects do you have planned?
I’m researching a possible second historical fiction novel based on the early life of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the only Southern white women ever to become leading abolitionists. It has long fascinated me that these two sisters from a wealthy family in South Carolina united to oppose the institution of slavery, which was the economic backbone of the South.

What else would you like to add for readers and writers to know?
As a writer edging toward the goal of publication, I found a beta reader service very helpful. The History Quill in London offers a beta readers service, which gave me feedback on my manuscript from a team of real historical fiction readers I didn’t know. The History Quill handpicked the readers based on a questionnaire I completed. The feedback I received was detailed, honest, and very insightful. I appreciate that The History Quill carefully vets their beta readers and ensures that they are a good fit for the story, which means the feedback is of good quality.

Additionally, I had to develop patience in querying agents. Many didn’t respond and said upfront not to expect a response if they were not interested, while others responded quickly with a standard rejection letter. Then, after weeks and even months of waiting, when I least expected it, a few took the time to craft a personal response. I appreciated those who gave praise and encouragement to continue writing. Seeing a small wave of humanity within the money-driven objective of the publishing world made me feel encouraged.

Constance Briones has a Master's in Woman's History and seeks to highlight little-known stories of women in history. She is a contributing writer to Historical Times magazine, and when not writing lends her time as an educational docent for her town's historical society. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and sibling Maine coon cats, Thor and Percy. For more, visit Try Before You Trust: To All Gentlewomen and Other Maids in Love.

Monday, January 8, 2024

The Best Stories Are Yours: Experience and Autofiction

Writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Answers to the question vary, but one common response is—experience.

Memoirists and fiction writers have a lot in common. Besides the fact that most writers now work in both genres, we share a foundation best described by memoirist Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story.Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance … the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say [about the circumstance].”

No fiction genre captures this better than autofiction.

Short for autobiographical fiction, autofiction draws a lot from the writer’s life, especially critical events, turning points, discoveries and lessons. But since autofiction writers aren’t replicating our entire life to create the story, we have more in common with memoirists than autobiographers. We have situations to explore, and we usually have a lot to say about them.

Here are three key features of autofiction:

  • Names: The names in our stories may be real, including the name of the protagonist.
  • Parallels: There are key similarities between the writer’s life and that of the protagonist. The protagonist may even be a writer, and the story may explore the role of writing in the character’s (writer’s) life.
  • Uncertainty: In a genre that already blurs reality, there’s an organic tension over what’s real and what isn’t. This engages the reader in thinking deeply about the work and the protagonist’s (writer’s) life.

Here are three examples of autofiction and why the authors chose this genre:

  • On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (2019): This work by Ocean Vuong is a letter from a son to a mother that discloses a family history rooted in Vietnam; the story serves as a window into aspects of the son’s life his mother never knew. Normally, our parents (mothers especially, in some cultures) tell us our family history and secrets. This work reverses that tradition.
  • Every Day Is for the Thief (2015): This bestselling first novel, in diaristic form, by acclaimed Nigerian-American Teju Cole, depicts a young man’s journey to Nigeria to discover his roots. Discovering one’s heritage often generates epiphany, as we suddenly recognize ourselves, for better or worse.
  • A Death in the Family (2013): One of The Guardian's 100 Best Books of the 21st Century, this novel series by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard examines childhood, family and grief. Even without knowing the details of the stories, the order of the trilogy is telling.

If you’re interested in mining your life to develop a work of fiction, try the dreamstorming technique described in From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. Here is Butler's general principle:

  • Go to your writing space, and give yourself time to remember, to watch yourself move through your life. The journey doesn’t have to be linear or chronological.
  • As you recall your life, note critical events, turning points, discoveries and lessons, and why they might figure into your story.

In each case, there is a situation and a corresponding emotional experience that makes the situation memorable, even worth writing about. These are the insights, the wisdom, the thing the writer has come to say about that event. Only you can tell that story.


Friday, December 8, 2023

When Story Speaks: The All-Important Development Draft

It's impossible to build a house without a plan, and most architects need more than one to achieve the results their clients envision. The same is true for writers. No one can accomplish everything—story arc, character development, smooth prose—in just one try.

When writers say they wrote a story in one sitting, they usually mean they did little or no revision while putting the initial concept on the page. While this is a great feeling, a strong first or early draft is still just a beginning. The all-important second or development draft is when the real story starts.

While a story or novel may undergo any number of revisions, there are three basic types of drafts: rough, development and final. The main goal of a rough draft is to capture the concepts emerging from the writer’s imagination while creative fires burn hottest. The main goal of a final draft is polish. The development draft’s main goals are exploration and discovery. Here’s why these goals are important and how to achieve them.

Many writers assume their initial story is the story they’ll end up with. But seeing story this way eliminates opportunities because writers don’t know to look for them. Like experienced hikers, skilled writers keep their minds, eyes and efforts open. Stories can offer up gems if we’re looking for them.

  • Step 1 — Mindset: Assume the story you’ve written isn’t the final version. Also assume there are discoveries to be made, large and small. To that end, think through your story and list which aspects you’d like to examine for opportunities.
  • Step 2 — Explore: When hikers travel new terrain, they’re looking to learn the surroundings. In familiar territory, they’re looking for what’s different. It’s never the same river twice. Writers can take the same approach by asking one simple question of their main and even secondary characters. What secrets are you still keeping, from others, from yourself, from me as the writer?
  • Step 3 — Observe: Practiced hikers know that all areas vary by season, time of day and weather so watchful travelers pay attention to changes in landscape and wildlife. Apart from the fact that vigilance could save their lives, they’re alert to changes because variations enhance the hiking experience.

Writers can take a similar approach by asking these questions of their stories:

  • What do I notice now that I didn’t before? How will this impact the overall story and the people in it?
  • How might I incorporate these changes to advance plot and develop character at the same time.

When we’re open to opportunities, actively seeking them and turning over rocks to find where they’re hiding, we’re usually (pleasantly) surprised at what we discover. If this means we need to expand the story or flesh out the characters, we may need to trim or remove other aspects.

Just as hikers want to avoid excess baggage, so do we. So do readers. Whether growing our narratives or reducing them, we can’t assume that a strong first or early draft means we’re done. Instead, we can assume the opposite. The strongest drafts often yield the most precious gems.

Happy writing!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Role of Research in the Art of Fiction & Novel Writing

One reason I started writing fiction was to avoid research. It wasn’t long before I realized that research is an essential tool and skill required for all writing, including and perhaps especially novel writing.

But what is the role of research in fiction, particularly the art of it?

One problem most, if not all, fiction writers and novelists encounter is how to depict a difficult scene where what is happening is illegal, immoral, offensive. How does the writer present the reality, its causes, and its effects, especially when research only underscores that what is happening is wrong?

One role of research is to inform the reality, the verisimilitude, of a scene, a story, the characters. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Where and how did their current actions originate? What caused them? What will their outcome be? But what happens when research only serves to underscore that the scene we are depicting will be difficult, even off-putting, for the audience?

One option might be to discard research altogether and simply write the scene. But when research is viewed as subordinate to and supportive of fiction, particularly the novel, it can do more for the writer than simply provide information. In order to create fiction, even long-form fiction at the level of art, research can inform the writer, the story and the characters. But research must not dictate the characters or the story. Nor should research dictate art.

Rather, one intention of art is to reflect the reality of the world and to elevate and underscore the truth of that reality, in all its beauty and ugliness.

As the Japanese filmmaker and painter Akira Kurosawa has said, “To be an artist means to search, to find and look at these realities. To be an artist means to never look away.”

A difficult subject or story, or difficult characters, are not sufficient cause in themselves to discard their darker side. For one role of art is to say, “This is what is.”

This does not mean that the writer, the artist, should pander to the senses, the desire for stimulation. What it does mean is making use of both light and darkness in our stories and the people in them, as painters such as Caravaggio and Vermeer have done.

The necessary outcome of the use of light and shadow back to back, the chiaroscuro effect, is precisely that we cannot see the extent of darkness unless light is right alongside it, nor can we see the extent of light unless darkness is right alongside it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

World-Building Your Story: Four Key Components

Our world has a lot going on. No surprise there. But stepping back, we could say that our very big (or very small) world has four main components—people, place, period, populace. Depending on the genres we write in, these may not look anything like what we see on earth, but we still need to fully develop each part, for ourselves and our readers.

While we’re using the word people here, fiction can comprise any type of living being. One writer created a story world where flowers were the life representatives. Ask these questions when creating and developing the beings in your story:

  • What types of beings will inhabit my story world?
  • Which characteristics will they share and which will differentiate them?
  • What does “life” mean in my story and to those in it?
  • How will my characters depend on each other and themselves?
  • To what degree will those in my story change, evolve, grow, die, remain the same?
  • What effects will these realities have on them and their world?
  • How will I address ethnicity, race, diversity, and how does this connect to what my story is about?

Where your story happens can be cosmic and epic, small as a mouse hole, visible or invisible, or anything in between. Here’s what to consider about the place(s) where your story happens:

  • Where is my story set? Is it urban, suburban, rural, a combination?
  • How well do I know the setting(s)?
  • What research do I need to do, and where can I go to find approximations of my setting?
  • Why have I chosen these places, and how will they impact the story and those in it?
  • How does place fit the theme of my story, what the story is about?
  • Does it fit the scope or size of the story?
  • Does the setting serve as a metaphor for the theme?
  • What is the landscape of my story; what does/do the location(s) look like?
  • How will I connect place with those who inhabit it?

On the surface, the choice of when the story is set seems simple. The three basics are past, present, future. But there’s a lot to consider here, too, such as:

  • Will I choose only one of these or work with more than one?
  • Why am I making these choices?
  • How will the time(s) when the story is set effect the characters and plot?
  • How well do I know this era?
  • If I’m not familiar with it or am constructing one from scratch, what do I need to learn to accurately depict it?
  • What does this period look like, meaning the architecture?

In this case, populace means society and culture. Of all the components, this is perhaps the most intricate and the one most shaped by and responsible for shaping the others. Key components of society include education, freedom, maturity, customs, traditions, languages, values, governance, styles of dress, art, and how wisdom and information are passed along. Here are considerations when building this very important aspect of your story world:

  • What place does education have in my story world, and how does it impact life in my story?
  • How free is the culture, and will this element improve or decline? How is freedom defined in this story?
  • How advanced is the culture, and will it evolve or devolve?
  • What are the story’s customs and traditions, and how do these impact those in my story?
  • Which languages are spoken, and to what degree do these connect people, separate them, both?
  • What are the culture’s values, and where do they come from? Will they change? If so, how? And what effects will this have on the story and people?
  • What style of governance does my story world have, and how does this impact life and story?
  • What are the styles of dress and art, and how do these reflect those in my story and their values?
  • How are wisdom and information passed along, for example, in oral tradition, advanced technology, written form? What do these forms look like?

Answering Tough Questions
The aspects of our world are many and complex. The four main categories of world-building—people, place, period, populace—and the questions surrounding them are meant to stir our imagination as writers so that we create detailed, believable story worlds that captive readers and make us better, deeper writers.

To personalize and deepen your mapping strategy, add questions of your own. When making choices, ask yourself why you’re making them. The answers to this question, possibly more than any other, will help get you where you want to go.

Resource: Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin, a guide to sailing the sea of story.

Happy writing!

Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. Her new novel is What She Takes Away (Bordighera Press, 2023). Adele was managing editor of Southern Literary Review and has taught writing for Westport Writers’ Workshop. She received her MFA from Fairfield University. Adele’s long-running blog for writers is Word for Words. Her website is Adele Annesi. For questions, email Word for Words.

Monday, July 10, 2023

I Can See Clearly Now: Patterns in Long-Form Fiction

Sometimes writers don’t think much about the form a story will take because stories often seem to take on a shape of their own. But writers of long-form fiction should be aware that all stories have a shape, or pattern, and that they can craft and mold that pattern to suit their vision for the work. First, what do we mean by “pattern”?

In the classic reference work Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster refers to pattern as the shape a longer work takes because of the choices the characters make. Here’s an easily recognizable pattern.

Our characters meet, their lives converge, then their lives ebb and recede, with each going their own way. Whether or not we or our readers stop to note the pattern, it draws us in because it's recognizable, and familiar patterns enable us to feel comfortable with the story and the characters, as if we’re traveling a familiar road but with a new group of friends (or enemies).

Then there’s the story pattern Forster calls the "grand chain," where characters appear in short bursts then return for short bursts. Having our characters strut and fret their brief moments on the stage then repeat the action works well in humoristic pieces, where tone and timing are key.

No matter which pattern we writers create, we need to be aware of the following:
  • Whether or not a story’s pattern is familiar, every story has one. Many stories have more than one.
  • One way to know what our story’s pattern is and how we can discern it is to read the work and mark each major decision the main character(s) make, then track the results or effects of these decisions, asking these questions:
    • Do the choices draw the characters closer to each other or disperse them?
    • Do the choices strengthen reader engagement or distance it?
    • Which of these effects do we want? Which work best for the story?
  • Patterns can be shaped. For instance, maybe our characters make a lot choices early in the story but few later on. In a case like this, readers may engage with the work early on and lose interest.
    • One way to avoid this is to recalibrate our characters’ choices and where they make them. Think of your car or cell’s GPS. Choosing a route that differs from the GPS’s instructions can alter your entire journey.
  • Patterns make a difference—to the characters, the story, the reader, everything. To get a sense of this, we need to give our stories time and distance then come back and read them through, asking:
    • Where does my story sag (low interest), lag (lose pacing), pick up speed (mover faster, maybe too fast)?
    • To correct these common problems, consider what different choice(s) your character(s) could make at these crucial junctures and how the choices impact the rest of the story.
Patterns appeal to our aesthetic sense because they provide symmetry and enable us to discern the story as a whole. While we writers continually make decisions about what our characters do, the place to rethink our choices and theirs is in revision. Here, we can do what Nathalie Goldberg referred to Writing Down the Bones as “re-seeing” the work and making organic adjustments that enhance the story, maybe even raise the stakes.

So in the classic pattern noted above, what if instead of having the characters meet, converge and go their separate ways the writer decides that the characters never meet. Instead, the main character spends their life seeking the object of their desire. If the story is about someone with selfish motives, thwarting their efforts and showing how the character responds can reveal (show versus tell) just how self-centered they were in the first place. A classic film with this theme is All About Eve.

So how do writers work with pattern in long-form fiction? Consider these questions:
  • Have you planned your story’s pattern or simply plotted the story?
  • At which points in the story do your characters make life-altering decisions?
  • What happens to the characters and the story as a result of these choices?
  • How can you tighten the story to strengthen the pattern, for example, by eliminating an unnecessary character or plot thread?
Whether or not we writers plan our story patterns, we certainly have a plan for our stories. The key is knowing that patterns exist and how to shape those patterns for what we want to achieve. Like us, our characters make decisions, then their decisions make them—and more.

For questions, email Word for Words.

Happy writing!

Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. Her new novel is What She Takes Away (New York: Bordighera Press, 2023). Adele was managing editor of Southern Literary Review and received her MFA from Fairfield University. She teaches for Westport Writers’ Workshop. Her website is Adele Annesi.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Yearning and an Impetus for Art

Fiction and nonfiction writers frequently push the boundaries of creativity, even those set by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers like Robert Olen Butler, author of From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. Yet, Butler offers practical methods for going from craft to art, especially with the oft-missing element of yearning.

Some form of desire exists in most stories, real and imagined. But depictions of what a person or character desires often fall short because they’re rendered through unartistic forms, such as abstractions, analyses, generalizations, interpretations and summaries. These have their place in writing, but not so much in storytelling, where there are better ways to go from heart to art.

Yearning, per se, isn’t story, but it often drives story, or good stories anyway. When readers are invited inside a character, they start caring about what that person wants and whether she’ll get it. And the deeper the yearning (more in type than intensity) the more artful the story and the higher the stakes. So how does a story reach these goals?

Butler offers the example of James Joyce, who used "epiphany" to refer to the moment in a story when its essence appears. Butler suggests that stories actually have two epiphanies—one at the climax (the type of epiphany Joyce referred to) and one that should happen near the story’s start. Cluing the reader in to what the main subject of the work yearns for adds interest and momentum. And it can raise the stakes. Given these realities, here are two considerations:

  • A person may yearn for one thing at the start of a story or novel and find out by the end that he has grown enough to want more; whether or not he gets it is another aspect of the story. The reverse may also be true.
  • A character may start with specific desires, peruse them and get exactly what she wants. There is also the possibility of desire within desire, similar to what in journalism is called the "real story." So what a person may seem to want or thinks she wants isn’t what she really wants, and her journey of realization becomes part of the storyline.

Both of these considerations involve discovery and generate natural opportunities for conflict, the lifeblood of story, real or imagined. And the stronger the yearning, and the tougher the obstacles, the more tension and conflict.

One way to raise the stakes in a story and the level of writing is to reveal and explore a person’s intangible longings—for example, for respect, a sense of self as distinct from others, for recognition, permanence or legacy, a place in the world or in the heart of someone else.

Examining these deeper desires in a book or novel opens the door to artful writing. For this, Butler advocates tilling the soil of the writer's imagination and past experience. This allows events, turning points and discoveries—as well as imaginings—to emerge from the compost of memory or from sheer imagination into the light of day before they’re dismissed by the writer's internal editor or shaped by craft before they’re fully realized.

This is where Butler's “dreamstorming” technique comes into play. Here, Butler suggests that writers find a writing space away from distractions and let their minds wander within the context of the story. Instead of immediately stopping to write what emerges, Butler recommends that writers keep pen and paper handy and only jot down a word or phrase to describe what comes to mind so as not to stem the flow of what they’re remembering or imagining.

Later, writers can amplify their notes and recollections into scenes without worrying about what each scene means to the overall work. These revelations usually come in draft two anyway. This is where the writer sees a character's real yearning and can portray it more artfully because the writer’s vision of who the person is and what she wants is clearer. "The point of revision is to find meaning," Butler notes.

Revision also enables writers to recognize and remove the vagaries of abstraction and generalizations, as well as those enemies of story—analyses, interpretations and summaries—in favor letting the people in the story reveal who they are and what they really want, whether they get it all or not.

Happy writing!