3 keys to storytelling

There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re driving. Stay between the lines, watch the speed limit, check your mirrors, signal when turning, DO NOT TEXT…

The list goes on and on. It’s a wonder that anyone can get in a car and go somewhere when we’re supposed to follow so many rules at the same time. But the human brain is an amazing thing, and people drive all the time with no problem.

(Well, some people drive all the time with lots of problems. I honk at those people.)

Anyway, writing is kind of similar. You have to mind your punctuation, spell things correctly, match your nouns and verbs, organize thoughts into sentences, organize sentences into paragraphs… The list goes on and on.

But these are the mechanics of writing, and after a while, they become second nature, just like using your turn signal or obeying a red light. (Yes, those should be second nature!)

What’s harder to remember is how to tell a good story. Probably because there are so many different ways to accomplish that. Now, I’m hardly an expert, but back at the Kenyon Review workshop, I did learn about 3 things that have really improved my storytelling: Object, Conflict, and the Ticking Clock.

The Object is something threaded throughout a story that the reader can follow. The Object can be an actual thing (like a watch) or a place (like a park) or it can even be a secondary character (like a pet pig). Usually the Object is important to the story or the story’s themes.

Conflict can come about in a variety of ways. We know the English teacher definition (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. God, etc.). But simply put, Conflict is when a character wants something and can’t get it. An easy way to create Conflict is to put another character into the scene/story. Even better, put TWO characters in.

The Ticking Clock is similar to Conflict in that it adds tension, but it isn’t a hindrance to the character’s goal. It merely adds urgency.

Here’s an example of what Object, Conflict, and a Ticking Clock can do for a story:

Olivia ran to the lab.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher.
Olivia ran to the lab to find the blue vial before Gallagher could poison Isaac with it.

The last sentence is a bit more exciting than the first, no?

Not every scene/story is going to have all 3 elements, but if you ever find yourself stuck, try looking for an Object in your story, or try putting one in. Try adding another character (or two) to the scene. Try a Ticking Clock. You might be surprised at how quickly things get interesting, and interesting scenes/stories are the ones that suck us in, both as writers and as readers.

(Note: Despite my analogy, I do not recommend adding an Object, Conflict, or Ticking Clock to your driving.)


One of the things Geeta (my Kenyon Review Writing Workshop instructor) asked us to do was to write down 10 memories by the end of the week. This was to help us let go of reality so we could focus on our fiction. Get it out of our system, you know? Well, I actually only wrote 3 (sorry!) but I was surprised by what came out. I’m not brave enough to post them in full — because they are real, and there are people who might be hurt or offended by what’s in them — but I think I can safely share the first sentences.

  1. I remember hiding in the bathroom at my best friend’s house, age 7 or 8, because I had made her upset and knew her father would be mad at me.
  2. I remember the first time we fogged up the car windows.
  3. I remember bringing the fat girl to the frat party.

These weren’t necessarily the first images or moments that came to mind, but they were the first memories that were full-bodied enough, interesting enough, meaningful enough, for me to want to put into words.

Anyone want to share 3 of their memories? First sentences are good enough for me, but I think you might be pleasantly surprised if you take the time to write them out for yourself. (And no, you don’t have to start with “I remember.” I just found that a helpful jump-start.)

Kenyon Review review (part 2)

For those who missed Part 1, I have recently returned from an awesome week in little old Gambier, OH.

So, what did I actually learn at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop? Well, without divulging too much of the KRWW’s patented teaching techniques, let me see if I can give you an idea…

“If an idea strikes you as absurd, go for it.” – Geeta Kothari

Prompts are not the pointless, ineffective little monsters I thought they were.

“You’re always looking for trouble in fiction.” – Geeta Kothari

A story needs conflict/tension and stakes…

“Lists are your friend.” – Geeta Kothari

…and will benefit from objects, a ticking clock, and at least 3 characters.

“When you’re writing about big things, it’s best to focus on the trivia/trivial.” – Geeta Kothari

Write a story you can contain. Bigger is not always better.

“You cannot find the absent in the absence.” – Jason Gray

“There’s an art to everything, even leaving.” – Carl Phillips

Poets are so darn poetic!

“Editors read for reasons to quit reading.” – David Lynn

Getting published is tough noogies. But it’s not impossible!

That’s the week in a nutshell. OBVIOUSLY there was a lot more to it than that, but if it were that easily conveyed, they (a) wouldn’t be able to charge $2k for it, and (b) wouldn’t bother having a workshop. They’d just print the rules somewhere and celebrate because everyone would now rock at writing! Alas, you must go and experience for yourself.

(And by “alas” I mean “YAY!”)

Bottom line: if you’re trying to improve as a writer, but you don’t want to go back to school (or don’t know if you do), then I definitely recommend the KRWW.

I remember when I heard there were returning students, and I was all, “Seriously? But it’s so expensive! But we’re in the middle of nowhere! But there are no agents!” (Note: I’d only been on campus for approximately 17 minutes.) By the middle of the week I was wondering how many times I could return before they’d declare me unteachable and ban me for life.

People go back because it’s a fun, friendly environment that nurtures growth. Both concretely, through the classes, and abstractly, through the setting and community. Yes, it’s a little pricey, but I am now completely convinced of its worth. I mean, when else are you going to have the awesome editors/staff/writers of a top-tier literary magazine focused on you?!

(On that note, I’d like to say thanks and give a shout out to: Tyler M, Anna DR, Jay T, and David L! Geeta too, but she was my teacher so she already knows I love her.)

One thing to note is that the KRWW is different from many other writing workshops and conferences. It’s not about schmoozing. Yes, you’ll meet and “network” with the KR staff and the various workshop teachers (who are all published, respected writers and poets) but there are no agents, no editors, no pitch sessions. You don’t bring stories that you want to work on. The KRWW is about understanding and improving your instincts and process as a writer. You will produce a new (short) piece every day. If you can take the guidance and critiques, you will improve.

So just keep that in mind. I don’t have the experience to say that this approach is any better or worse than what the schmoozy workshops do. I think it’s just different. In some ways it’s less direct (you won’t meet your future agent) but in some ways it’s more so (because you can’t get an agent unless you write really well). Just think about what you need and want most at this point in your life/career, and whichever kind of workshop/conference you end up at, make sure you make the most of it.

Kenyon Review review (part 1)

Well hello again! I’m back from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and boy was it a doozy.

Before I go into that, let me take a moment to thank my AWESOME guest bloggers. Pseudo, Floreta, and Andy, your posts were insightful, enjoyable, and all-around fabulous. Thank you so much for sharing your unique voices and thoughts. Hopefully this won’t be the last time!

Also, welcome to all the new readers! I’m flattered that you’ve chosen to stick around. Please make yourselves at home, and chime in whenever you want. We’re friendly around these parts.

Now, let’s talk about the writers boot camp workshop. I’ve promised not to give away all their trade secrets, but it really was an amazing week, and I’d like to share a few of my experiences.

First, welcome to Gambier, Ohio:

Day 1 003

Um, yeah, that’s pretty much it. Like, the whole town. I mean, there are houses and stuff too, but this two-block square constitutes “downtown” Gambier. There’s a market, a bookstore, a couple restaurants, a post office, a clinic, and some campus administration buildings. There is NOT ONE SINGLE STREET LIGHT. When I first arrived and realized this was home for the next week, I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But by the end, I must confess: I was in love with little ole Gambier.

(The perfect weather didn’t hurt either. Even the one night it stormed was absolutely gorgeous, with dazzling lightning streaking the sky.)

This is Finn House, home base to the Kenyon Review:

Day 1 008

After signing in, I dropped my stuff in the dorm and then went out to “orient” myself. Which was oh-so-hard to do in a two-block town… Needless to say, I had a little time to kill before the welcome dinner. Somehow I ended up at the happy hour for teachers and their assistants. Awk-ward. But everyone was friendly, so it turned out just fine.

Day 1 012

At the welcome dinner, I decided to sit with students my age, and that pretty much determined the rest of my experience. Six of us bonded quickly, and in just a day or two we became known as “the posse.” Four of us were in the same class (Fiction for New Writers with Geeta Kothari — which ROCKED) and the other two were poets.

Here we are, hard at work in the bookstore after the first day of class.

Day 2 002

The daily routine was: class in the morning (3 hrs), lunch, “free time” (i.e., goof off and then SCRAMBLE TO WRITE time), optional movie sessions, dinner, readings, and more “free time” (i.e., OMIGOD IT’S MIDNIGHT ALREADY? I ONLY HAVE 100 WORDS time).

Here’s the hilarious and adorable Rebecca McClanahan (who taught the Creative Non-Fiction workshop) giving her reading.

Day 3 008

Gambier is a very dog-friendly place, so even though I was missing Riley something fierce, I had plenty of puppy love to divert my attention.

Day 4 007

As the days passed, I found myself producing better work, but more slowly. Socializing may or may not have played a role in that… *halo* I plan to post some of what I wrote at the KRWW over the next few weeks, except the piece I chose to read because I’d like to get it published. If you’d like to hear it, though, my friends taped my reading. (Warning: audio is a little hard to hear.)

Thursday was probably the peak of the week. After that, the lack of sleep (6 hrs, 3 hrs, 5 hrs…) started to get us, and our writing too. Still, every day was a blast. It was like summer camp, in the sense that you know your time is limited so you bond and divulge far more quickly than you ever would under normal circumstances. I of course got teased for being lame. Joe even said, “You have the least street cred of anyone I have ever met.” Doh.

(Although if that puts me in the company of Taylor Swift, then maybe it’s not so bad. Check out “Thug Story” if you haven’t already! It’s hilarious.)

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. On Saturday we said our goodbyes, but we also celebrated our new friendships with one last hurrah.

Day 8 001 Day 8 002 Day 8 003

As Zara said, “Things we are good at: writing. Things we suck at: jumping in unison.”

The posse, in order L to R: Adorable, General Druncle, Speedy, The Wildcard, Poet Laureate, and Grandma.

Day 8 005

(All pictures from the week can be found here in my Flickr set.)

Another workshop participant, Kirsten Ogden, posted her (more poetic) take on the week at the Kenyon Review blog. One of the quotes is mine — can you guess which? (Angie and Mengfei aren’t allowed to play ’cause they’ve read the story!)

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop update


Nope, Riley has nothing to do with the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. But I sure do miss him!

Anyway, I’m alive and well and writing/learning lots. More details when I return. (I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday, and at the same time only Wednesday…)

Coming up I’ve got one more guest blog, as well as the next episode of Twenty-Somewhere. So stay tuned!