A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft

Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, Editors

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft continues the conversation begun by Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, and The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work. Writers and readers are once again invited to join a wide variety of veteran fiction writers who teach as they embark on personal investigations of topics ranging from the familiar (point of view, place) to the delightfully unexpected (intimacy, puzzles, imminence). While beginning and developing writers might find something like instruction in these pages, others will be provoked to reconsider what they thought they understood, and still more will be inspired to set off on their own journeys. “There’s plenty of string,” says Mr, Dick of his kite, in David Copperfield, “and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing ’em. I don’t know where they may come down. It’s according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.”

Read Peter Turchi’s brief history of the anthology series.

Table of Contents

Introduction, “Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett”

I. NARRATIVE DISTANCE AND NARRATIVE VOICE

“The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists,” Frederick Reiken
“Self-awareness and Self-deception: Beyond the Unreliable Narrator,” Sarah Stone
“The Truthless Narrator,” Judy Doenges
“First Person: Finding the Right Address,” Wilton Barnhardt
“Comic and Cosmic Distance,” CJ Hribal

II. REVEALING CHARACTER

“In the Garden: Revealing a Character at a Moment of Change,” Megan Staffel
“The Space Between,” Stacey D’Erasmo
“The Literature of Delusion: Approaches to Madness and Mania in Fiction,” Dominic Smith
“The Absence of Their Presence: Mythic Character in Fiction,” Steven Schwartz
“Emblem, Essence,” Robert Cohen

III. SEEING AND SETTING

”It’s a Wooden Leg First“: On the Nature of Seeing in Fiction,” Maud Casey
“Matrix for Meaning: Physical Setting in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian,” Alexander Parsons
“Some Reflections on the Concept of Place in Fiction,” Karen Brennan
“The Heart One Knows by Heart: Operating Instructions for Operating Instructions,” Michael Martone

IV. PATTERN AND SHAPE

“Size Matters, Debra Spark
“Puzzles, Mysteries, and Other Problems; or The Seven Bridges of Königsberg,” Peter Turchi
“The Breakout Element: Unpredictability and the Novel,” Lan Samantha Chang
“Lush Life,” Charlie Baxter
“On Suspense, Shower-Murders, the Sword of Damocles, and Shooting People on the Beach,” Anthony Doerr
“The About-to-Be Moment: Imminence in the Grimm Fairy Tales,” Kevin McIlvoy

Introduction

“What do you think of that for a kite?” he said.
I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it must have been as much as seven feet high.
“I made it. We’ll go and fly it, you and I,” said Mr. Dick. “Do you see this?” He showed me that it was covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written; but so plainly, that as I looked along the lines, I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First’s head again, in one or two places.
“There’s plenty of string,” said Mr. Dick, “and when it flies high, it
takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing ’em. I don’t
know where they may come down. It’s according to circumstances,
and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.”

— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Writing fiction is, like most writing, a solitary pursuit. Finding the words, the images,
the characters, the scenes, the voice, and the structure that bring a story or novel to life, and that
come close to fulfilling the writer’s ambition for the work—or, in the happiest cases, exceed
that ambition—sometimes seems as improbable as life itself. In Climbing Mount Improbable,
evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote,

However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead…If you think of all possible ways of arranging the bits of an animal, almost all of them would turn out to be dead; more accurately they’d mostly never be born. Each species of animal and plant is an island of workability set in a vast sea of conceivable arrangements most of which would, if they ever came into existence, die. The ocean of all possible animals includes animals with their eyes in the soles of their feet, animals with lenses in their ears instead of their eyes, animals with one left wing and one right fin; animals with skulls around their stomachs and nothing around their brains. (99)

Bringing a piece of fiction to life, especially one with all the parts in the best possible
place, requires preparation, patience, persistence, practice, and some combination of inspiration,
intuition, and conscious manipulation. It makes perfect sense that, at some point during those
long hours at the desk, or with the laptop warming one’s thighs, the writer might wonder, “Isn’t
there an easier way to do this?”

It’s tempting to say the answer is No. Assuming the writer in question is interested
in discovery, as opposed to mere production, the blank page, or screen, always presents new
challenges. Writing one good story, even a marvelous story, is no guarantee that the author can
write another as good. Having written one novel does not, as everyone in the situation quickly realizes, guarantee any kind of success with the next one.

But to some significant extent the answer is Yes. That answer comes in many forms:
in books and essays, in classes and private workshops, even in podcasts—ways in which some
writers tell other writers, Here are a few things that might help. Those things might be examples,
explanations, or bits of advice. Most tempting—and most dangerous—are “rules.” Rules for
writing fiction are sometimes presented boldly, sometimes disguised, but boil down to the
reassuring, “This is how you do it.”

While such firm instruction can be useful to the beginner, following it dutifully leads,
ultimately, to the sort of writing Flannery O’Connor criticized when she wrote, in Mystery and
Manners
, “so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium
is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly.
What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class” (86). It’s
good to be a competent driver, good to be a competent cook; but the term “competent artist” is
an oxymoron. Part of the artist’s challenge—the fiction writer’s challenge—is to transcend the
familiar, and simply following rules will not lead to transcendence.

What this book—like its precursor, Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction
and the Writing Life
—offers, instead, is good company for that solitary pursuit, in the form
of considerations of craft by writers actively involved in exploring possibilities. While there
are plenty of insights, and there is no shortage of strongly-urged advice, none of these essays
began as an attempt to tell anyone how fiction should be written. Instead, they began as personal
investigations: attempts to understand why a decision in a particular story or novel seemed
successful; to define a quality or problem or sub-category that seemed either unrecognized or
unsatisfactorily defined; to pass on understanding gained by experience; to understand what,
despite years of experience, resisted comprehension; and to pursue haunting, perhaps even
unanswerable questions. Eventually, each of these musings took the form of an oral presentation
at a residency of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers (about which, more in a
moment); many of them were also presented elsewhere, in one form or another; and all of them
were revised for print.

The common denominator for the contributors is that they have all taught—some a few
times, some over decades—in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the first
low-residency program in creative writing. Founded by the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt at Goddard
College in 1976, the program—not only its design, but its students and faculty—moved to
Warren Wilson, in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1981. From the outset, the expectation at the
residencies was that, as Ellen has put it, “everyone”—poets and fiction writers, faculty and
students—“would go to everything.” (Sadly, at most colleges and universities, if one faculty
member sits in on another’s class, the purpose is usually not to learn anything, but to fill out
an evaluation.) Faculty who lectured at Warren Wilson quickly adapted to this challenging
audience—a combination of wonderfully talented students and a diverse group of peers with
high expectations—and to the context. Instead of giving lectures they’d given a dozen times
wherever else they taught, instead of passing along familiar guidelines, they created a tradition
of reporting on their own investigations into the aspects of the art that for one reason or another
captured their interest.

Since everyone at a given lecture then goes on to a class, then to a reading, and the next
day to another lecture, more or less as a group, any one presentation is part of the larger, ten-
day-long discussion; and since many of the same people return six months or a year later, the Warren Wilson lectures have become an ongoing conversation about poetry and fiction involving
literally hundreds of writers. Representative essays have been published not only in Bringing
the Devil to His Knees
but also in Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, and Poet’s Work,
Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art
. Fiction writers on the faculty also created The
Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work
.

Like any good conversation, there is no strict logic or progression to the one that follows,
but we’ve grouped the essays into sections for easy reference. The first concerns narration, with
particular attention to various kinds of narrators; the second, the strategic creation and
presentation of character; the third, some of the roles of the visual, beginning with establishing
setting; and the fourth, structural and organizational issues, from movement through time to the
manipulation of information to create mystery and suspense.

But even those broad categories are too narrowly defined. These essays are true
excursions, and contain any manner of side trips: personal anecdotes, jokes, references to music
and film. Anyone looking to be told what to do in a story or novel’s first sentence, how to write
the second, and so on, is bound to be disappointed. Writers and readers interested, instead, in
contemplations of various aspects of the fiction writer’s craft will, we think, find this collection
surprising, provocative, and even useful. Toward that goal of usefulness, the contributors and the
editors have donated 100% of the royalties from this book to Friends of Writers, Inc., to provide
scholarships for developing writers. Rather than wanting to have the last word, all of the writers
here hope to inspire the next one.

Peter Turchi

Andrea Barrett

Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers
Buy this book from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC: www.malaprops.com/book/9781595340726
or
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