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.”
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
"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
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
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.