Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Through Fiction's Fourth Wall: Part 2


Yesterday I shared some of the inspiration behind the second-person narration in "Aberrations," the lead story in Visions: Short Fantasy and SF.

Second-person, present-tense narration is underused in fiction for some practical reasons that we can get into later, but it does lend a certain immediacy to a narrative, and it has made for some interesting results when I've asked my students to give it a try.

When introducing students to the second-person, I start by sharing a conventional piece of first- or third-person fiction. I prefer short-short stories for this activity, since they allow the class to focus on a complete work rather than an excerpt.

In the past I've had success using flash fiction from 365 Scary Stories and 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories. (Naturally, you can also use some of the short-short stories in Visions, two of which also appear in those aforementioned anthologies). Your local librarian or bookseller will help you find plenty of other sources. Don’t have quick access to either? Then try the digital archives of the flash-fiction magazine The Vestal Review, which has just published its 36th issue. Your students will get a real kick out of the stories there.

Once you have found a workable story, you should contact the author and get permission to use the work in your classroom or workshop. Making contact shouldn't be hard in this day of author websites and email, and most writers are flattered to get such requests. Beyond that, they are likely to welcome the opportunity to reach a new group of readers. Trust me on this. Try it, and let me know if I'm wrong.

I also make a point of letting the students know that the author has granted permission to use the story in the activity. It makes for a sense of connection with the literary world.

Although I prefer to share such models by projecting them onto my classroom's SmartBoard, photocopied handouts can work, too. (Just be sure to get those handouts back at the end of the lesson, unless your arrangement with the author has included letting everyone keep a copy.) After reading and discussing the story, you and the class can begin going through it line by line, adjusting nouns, pronouns, and verbs as needed. With advanced classes, this process leads to discussions about the ways in which the narrative quickly changes tone. With beginning writers, it also opens discussions on the connections between pronouns and verbs.

Here's an example of what you'll notice. The text is from the opening of my short-short story "Echoes," (Twilight Zone, Feb. 1983, reprinted in Visions: Short Fantasy and SF):

Marie stood in the kitchen, staring at the magnetic birds on the refrigerator door, and after a while Billy yelled in from the living room to tell her that Paul wanted some milk.

She didn’t answer.

Paul had been dead for three months.

Now here it is again in present tense, second person:

You stand in the kitchen, staring at the magnetic birds on the refrigerator door, and after a while Billy yells in from the living room to tell you that Paul wants some milk.

You don’t answer.

Paul has been dead for three months.

See the difference? The original strikes me as quiet and haunting. The second version seems more immediate, almost desperate. It's certainly the beginning of a very different kind of story.

The activity has been a good way to help students explore a seldom used narrative voice. Your mileage may very, but if you take this one for a spin, let me know how it goes. Oh yes, and if you want to use "Echoes," just ask.

I'll be back next week with some thoughts on multimedia storytelling.

Until then, share the vision!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Through Fiction's Fourth Wall: Part 1

09.29.09: V-Day

This is it! The day of the official release of Visions. Don't have a copy yet? Go ahead and get one. I'll be here when you get back.

All right. Now let's get to it.

Yesterday I touched on the private nature of writing. Let’s consider it again, this time as it relates to both writer and reader.

A writer composes a story in solitude for a reader who reads the work alone. Between the two lies a world of characters who have no awareness of either the reader or writer. But what happens when the writer’s voice shifts to second person, when the reader becomes a character in that previously self-contained world of fiction?

I remember when I first realized the potential of that mode of storytelling. It was September 16, 1963, the night that the science-fiction program The Outer Limits premiered on ABC. I sat before the set, waiting for the show to begin, when suddenly the screen went dark. A moment later, the control voice began, speaking directly to me through the 24-inch Magnavox.

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture […]. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits.

It was, of course, a ripoff of a second-person intro that had been airing on CBS since 1959 -- Rod Serling's opening for The Twilight Zone -- although I'm not sure I was aware of that at the time.

You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!

Although neither show sustained the second-person narrative beyond the introductions (unless we count the few lines at the end of each episode), both impressed me enough to start experimenting with second-person, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type stories.

Eventually, I discovered fully developed second-person narratives in books and magazines, perhaps the most successful of which was Bob Leman's “Instructions” (F&SF September 1984, and currently available as a chapbook from Tachyon Publications). Incredibly, Leman sustains the control voice through an entire 6,000 word story. Here's how it begins:

This is the only notice you will receive.
You will follow the instructions set out below.

1. Dress warmly and leave your house. Do not tell your family you are leaving. Do not talk to them at all.
Do not listen if they talk to you.
Dress warmly and leave the house.

2. Proceed at a brisk clip to the center of town.
The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and “Instructions” were very much on my mind when I wrote “Aberrations,” the piece of second-person flash fiction that opens Visions, and writing that story (and noting the response that it gets when I read it live) started me thinking of a number of fiction-writing exercised to help break the ice and prime the pump in writing classes and workshops.

In tomorrow's installment, I'll share with you one of those lessons.

Until then, share the vision!

Monday, September 28, 2009

SF, Fantasy, and Teaching Visions


When I started writing back in the ages of manual typewriters and carbon paper, I found that I enjoyed the private nature of the work. I wrote my first stories in silent obscurity, and even when they sold to the likes of Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, and Year’s Best Horror, I regarded writing as a private affair. I had never attended a workshop, didn’t belong to a writing group, and (it being the early 1980s) lived in a world devoid of things like tweets, texting, and blogs -- modes of communication that today put writers in close and constant contact with readers.

My perception of writing privacy changed when I was hired to teach freshman composition at a large university. “You might want to share your stories with your students,” the English chair told me. “They might like knowing they’re learning from a published writer.”

I took his advice, and soon found myself engaging in conversations with some fairly opinionated undergrads, some of whom were genuinely interested in learning how a person went about selling fiction to the magazines. I told them what I knew, and two years later I moved from covering Freshman Comp to teaching upper-division classes in Fiction Writing and Science Fiction.

Other public gigs followed: library readings, high-school workshops, book-group talks. Then came a full-time position with the Senior School English Department at Sewickley Academy, where I have been for the past twenty years, and a resident position in the Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, with which I have been associated since 2002. In short, writing hasn’t been private for a long time, and yet, unlike many of my peers, I have resisted cultivating a presence in that digital fishbowl provided by the Internet.

Enter Will Horner at Fantasist Enterprises.

After purchasing my novel Veins in 2008, Will expressed interest in putting out a collection of some of my stories. The result is Visions: Short Fantasy and SF, which will be officially released tomorrow, September 29. (And which received good advance notice in the August 3 issue of Publishers Weekly.)

As we were assembling the book, it occurred to me that the stories (which included my first sale to Amazing Stories as well as my most recent novelettes for F&SF) had something to say about the development of a writer. Each story represented a series of lessons learned, many of them the same lessons that I strive to pass along to my students. Although some of these lessons are shared in the introductions to the stories in Visions, as well as in the book's retrospective afterword, I felt, as I looked over the final manuscript, that I had much more to say.

Hence this blog.

In future installments, I hope to use the stories in Visions as departure points for the discussion of writing, science fiction, fantasy, and whatever else the stories bring to mind. Along the way I hope to pass along some strategies for young writers, lessons for writing instructors, and perhaps a few reviews of contemporary works that have proven useful in workshops and lectures over the years. In any event, I hope you will come back, read what you find here, and offer feedback.

Because I believe in the benefits of a routine, I’ll plan to produce three posts a week, one each Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We’ll resume tomorrow, on the day of the official release of Visions, with some musings on second-person narration.

Until then, share the vision.