It was an honor to be in two of Deb Olin Unferth's classes at KU (2008-09). I often take notes, so here are a few I wrote:
Books we used in class:
Jesus' Son (excellent book)
The use of names of character's, even after they are killed off in previous stories
Use of dream/mysticism via drug hallucination
Characters as themselves--coldness
Arkansas (great McSweeney's book)
Similar to Jesus' Son, up a notch
Uses "you"--you as a character going back in years
Burn books at a dealer's place
Later, you realize the chatacters are talking about you--you were the one that saw the characters
Other recommended books:
The People of Paper (yes, I loved this one)
Autobiography of Alice B Toklas
In the Lighthouse
Ways to write:
Rejection of previous utterance
Narrative outside construct
Leave mystery/things unanswered
Suspense with surprise/challange possibilities
Exclude "cheating" chapters (do not define terms, e.g. Motorman)
Use of space on the page (block text, blank space, etc.)
Change words throughout sentence (think Harryette Mullen)
Calling credibility/authority into question (main char, etc.)
Familiar into abstract
Mystery in detail
Tell a good secret in the first sentence of the story
Use contrasts of sentences
Contrasts of stories/narrative/tension without discussion
1) Information is the enemy of Art. Placing information in displaces Art.
So make it Artful!
If conveying information: write a relationship of tension with information.
2) Create tension by contrast. Create depth by contrast.
Diff. ways to create tension: style, structure, description--not just story.
Adds profundity to the text.
One story suggestion: place scenes on cards, then rearrange them--to have control and be aware of how the scenes function.
A dangerous place is an urgent place. The author is also in emotional danger. The author is afraid to write--that it might be too revealing. When writing from this place of urgency, it brings powerful writing and/or confusions of morality. Objective of fiction: to raise these issues that philosophy can't.
Love your characters and put them in harm's way.
Avoid traps of multiple stories. Avoid writing the same story. In Jesus' Son, each story is independent. Not juggling the same tensions (e.g. the girlfriend problem). Each story has a problem: we are going to work today, a guy has a knife in his eye, etc. There is an action, a situation, an environment, in each one.
Grace Paley: Every story has two stories. If there is one, the story might not work. Action/event + emotional problem.
One is upheld, so the other is with held.
Sometimes there is a flashback in a story--when the flashback is the story. Why not only have the flashback?
Do not use description to describe a place. Use description to show the character'semotion, the situation, etc. We all know what a room looks like.
(Note: Atonement often has one or two room desc. to show what a character is like or values.)
Think of what the extreme opposite of what is usually said is and see what happens when in the story. To take an uncreepy action and make it uber-creepy.
For metafiction, find the "rules" of fiction and incorporate it in a story. Or take the rules of fiction and write something else.
Start a story with something exciting--not a cliche.
Take out leading participles to see what strength a sentence has. Does it take too long to get to the topic? That way, a phrase like "one afternoon" becomes a sudden trigger--to know there is an important turn.
To write as a contemporary, recognize "the old" in the text--but move it forward.
Break apart a rut.
Find where repetition is and decide if it is needed--prepositional phrases, etc. "Although" is a weak word, while "eventually" carries weight. Look at all of the opening phrases.
Use your subtitles in different ways: a reaction to what happened, to transition into what is said, to use as a joke, etc.
Two important levels of a story: philosophical and emotional.
"Are you all tired? It is because you drank wine." --what Deb said at towards the close the night we had workshop in her house because the campus was closed due to KU going to the Final Four Championship in 2008.
Note: I also did her dishes!